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Post Editor Dirda Speaks at Plain Language Awards Ceremony

By Harrison Wein

Peppering his talk with witty quotes and aphorisms, Michael Dirda, senior editor of the Washington Post's Sunday "Book World" section, entertained an audience at NIH's first Plain Language Awards ceremony with anecdotes and advice on how to write clearly.

Editor Michael Dirda

The audience was there to celebrate the NIH Plain Language Initiative, which stemmed from a 1998 White House memorandum calling for all federal government writing to be in plain language. Plain language documents, according to the memo, have logical organization, easy-to-read design features and use common, everyday words (except for necessary technical terms), "you" and other pronouns and short sentences.

Four teams — from NCI, NEI, NIA and NLM — were honored for winning "No Gobbledygook" awards from the National Partnership for Reinventing Government, a group dedicated to improving communication from the government to the public. NIH acting director Dr. Ruth Kirschstein said, "Winning these prestigious plain language awards demonstrates NIH's success in communicating useful information, something we have striven for for many, many years."

The NIH plain language coordinating committee honored a booklet from NICHD, and named several other documents as "superior" or "outstanding." Cited were publications ranging from booklets to calendars to web sites; an honorable mention was even given to a traffic sign ("Yield"). A full list of winners is posted at

Kirschstein greeted all honorees as they came to the stage. "I encourage you to continue your efforts to ensure that everything we write, speak or display is clear and to the point," she said. "By doing so, you'll be providing support to the NIH research mission, which is so important to the public health of the country. Today I ask that we all recommit ourselves to communicating with all our audiences using plain language: language that is focused on the reader."

Dirda praised NIH's efforts after the awards presentation: "I want to express my pleasure that NIH and other branches of government have adopted a plain language philosophy. It would be hard to imagine a more useful initiative."

According to Dirda, novelist Elmore Leonard once said, "If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it."

He stressed the importance of clear language. "If writing is communication," he said, "then only clear writing is effective communication." He recommended keeping in mind the words of Winnie the Pooh: "I am a bear of very little brain, and long words bother me." Use the most simple and powerful words you can to get your ideas across, but don't dumb down or oversimplify what you're writing about.

As examples, Dirda cited Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson as early American masters of clean writing. He also cited the "forceful, concise and harmonious" prose styles of the writers John Dryden, Jonathan Swift, Joseph Addison and William Hazlitt. Describing their prose, he said, "Nothing ever jars or seems stilted or merely rhetorical." Dirda read a quote by George Orwell, who he called our modern master of this plain style: "Good prose should be transparent, like a window pane."

How to Write Better

According to Dirda, novelist Elmore Leonard once said, "If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it." But Dirda admitted that good writing is not easy. He cited the words of a famous sportswriter: "There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein."

Here are some suggestions he gave to help improve your writing:

You really have to care about your subject. Have something to say. If you are indifferent or bored, your writing will be limp, dull and bland. Find some way to make it fun for yourself.
Your sentences need to give you pleasure. You should read your work aloud and listen to your voice on the page. Make sure that each sentence does a job. Eliminate verbal noise, clutter, deadwood, verbiage.
Keep your audience in mind. You need to imagine how your words will register in the minds of others. Make sure your message is clear, yet be faithful to its complexity.
Strive to write in your own voice. Not that you should be overly eccentric or egotistical, he said, but if you can't make your writing personal — a reflection of your inner self — it will never give you satisfaction.
The final product should be a source of pride. Not necessarily a lot of pride, Dirda joked, but at least some.

He had specific advice for those at NIH who work on highly technical documents. "I recommend the counsel of the Roman rhetorician Quintilian," he said. "'One should aim not at being possible to understand, but at being impossible to misunderstand.'"

More information about NIH's plain language initiative can be found at

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