Plain Talking

< And The Award For Convoluted Legalese Goes To …

Heard on Morning Edition

April 26, 2010 – RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

For as long as business and government officials have been churning out indecipherable documents, people have been trying to encourage officials to write more clearly. One group involved in that seemingly Sisyphean effort is a Washington, D.C. nonprofit called the Center for Plain Language. This week, the group is announcing its first awards for the best and worst writing.

Founder Annetta Cheek joined us to talk about the awards. Good morning.

Ms. ANNETTA CHEEK (Founder, Center for Plain Language): Good morning.

MONTAGNE: And we’re also joined here in Los Angeles by David Malki, a cartoonist whose taken aim at poor writing. And he was also one of the judges of the award.


Mr. DAVID MALKI (Cartoonist): Hello. Good Morning.

MONTAGNE: Now let me start with you, Annetta Cheek. What prompted you to start the Center fort Plain Language in the first place?

Ms. CHEEK: Well, I was a federal employee for 25 years and I just got so tired of all that bureaucratic and legalistic writing. And I was also tired of trying to deal with the fallout from that. First off, it’s very expensive because people have to call and or write and then the government has to respond.

But more essentially, people get denied benefits because they don’t understand what they have to do to get them. People get penalized because they did something wrong because the government’s instructions weren’t clear. And I just couldn’t understand why government writers didn’t understand that they needed to be clearer in the documents that they were writing.

MONTAGNE: Okay so, to the contest. Let’s start with a letter of a kind that many of us can relate to. This particular one is from Chase Bank. It’s among the nominations you received for worst writing.

Ms. CHEEK: Right.

MONTAGNE: Why don’t you read some of it?

Ms. CHEEK: Okay. Let me read my very favorite single sentence: We may charge no less than the minimum interest charge if any periodic interest charge is due for a billing cycle.

Now, I read that sentence probably 10 times and I still really do not know what it means. When I called Chase and said they’d won this, they were very disappointed because they said: We really tried to do this better.

(Soundbite of sigh)

Ms. CHEEK: And that’s what’s alarming because if this is their best effort, you know, the situation is pretty sorry.

MONTAGNE: Do they have to use some of this language?

Ms. CHEEK: No.

Mr. MALKI: Well let’s be clear, we all know that all of these very arcane forms are not written for the benefit of the customer. They’re written for the benefit of paper and ink manufacturers.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MALKI: So we all know that banks are hand in hand with big paper. Every time they can send an envelope full of 48 papers, I think someone’s brother-in-law gets a promotion.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: Well, there is a winner in this contest. One of them, it’s an entry for the prize of best revised writing. This one is a pamphlet from the American Speech-Language Association. It’s called “Let’s Talk.”

Ms. CHEEK: The original was called “Cognitive Communications Problems Following Right Hemisphere Damage.”

MONTAGNE: Right. I’m reading now.

Ms. CHEEK: Right.

MONTAGNE: I’m sucked in.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CHEEK: Yes. Absolutely. That was just so thrilling that you had to read on through some very dense text, by the way. And the new one is called “Thinking and Behavior Problems from Stroke.”

Mr. MALKI: There’s also a lot of nice headlines that are in big type and there’s a thing on the side that’s in a different color.

Ms. CHEEK: Right.

Mr. MALKI: And these are things are all things that draw your eye around to different elements of to and make it much easier to read.

MONTAGNE: Well, although David Malki, you’re a cartoonist and you write in an amusing sort of form that obviously by definition it almost has to be clear. You’re – I wonder if someone who is, you know, a bureaucratic writer, a person who writes documents whose given information for lawyers and whatnot, is it harder than one might think to write that natural?

Ms. CHEEK: Yeah.

Mr. MALKI: Sure. Absolutely. And I definitely acknowledge that there are legal terms that need to be portrayed, you know, certain guidelines laid out in a very clear and legal way in case it’s ever contested. However, there are a lot of freelance writers who need some work. And they could easily be hired.

Ms. CHEEK: Right. Writing clearly is not easy. And I think writing is one of those things that many people think I don’t need an expert; I can do it myself. But I think it is something that needs an expert, particularly when you have a team of technical people and legal people, I think a critical third member of that team is someone who knows how to write clearly. And very often that team member is not there at all.

MONTAGNE: Well, on that note, I’ll just ask you David Malki, having been the judge of these awards, what was your favorite worst award?

Mr. MALKI: Yeah, my absolute favorite was one from Temple University. It was like poetry. It was really great.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MALKI: It was “Guidelines for Students.” And then in big bold type at the top it says: These guidelines may not actually be in effect and you should contact the student office to see if any of these guidelines are actually in effect at any time.

And it was really gratifying. In this hustle bustle world someone’s out there just writing guidelines for the sake of just writing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: Well, thank you both very much for joining us.

Mr. MALKI: Thank you.

Ms. CHEEK: Thank you for having us.

MONTAGNE: And that was Annetta Cheek. She’s chairman of Center for Plain Language and David Malki. He’s a cartoonist and writer and was one of the Plain Language Awards.


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