Front Page

Previous Story

Next Story

NIH Record

NIH Commits to Plainspokenness

By Susan Persons

As Apr. 15 nears, it is easy to imagine a scene that Norman Rockwell might well have painted. The setting is the American kitchen, table covered with boxes of receipts and various papers scattered about, the clock on the wall nearing midnight, and a frustrated individual scratching his or her head, struggling to understand a tax form. Many skeptics would say that this image is real — and immutable.

Nonetheless, whether it is tax forms, instructions regarding social security benefits, or health messages from NIH, the federal government is initiating a plan, the Plain Language Initiative, to make all communication with the public "more responsive, accessible and understandable." And NIH is determined to make this effort a success. "It is important that the mission of the NIH be stated in 'plain language' so it is understood by the American people who stand to benefit by our research endeavors," said Dr. Ruth Kirschstein, acting NIH director.

What is the Plain Language Initiative?

The Plain Language Initiative requires the use of plain language in all new documents written for the public that explain how to obtain a benefit or service or how to comply with a requirement. By Jan. 1, 2002, everything the federal government publishes must conform to this requirement. Plain language is a style that requires the writer to focus on what the reader needs to know, rather than what the writer wants to say. (Correction: It is a style of writing that requires a focus on what you need to know, not what I want to say. Yes —the use of personal pronouns is not only allowed but also preferred!)

For most of us this initiative will require that we "unlearn" many writing techniques that have become habitual. We will need to form new habits such as: writing in the active instead of the passive voice (for example, "Kirschstein decided that..." rather than, "It was decided that..."); using common, everyday words instead of words we need a thesaurus to find; shortening our sentences; making more use of lists, tables, graphics and "white space"; and using the "question and answer" format to organize material around the interest of the reader.

These techniques are but a sampling of a way of writing that simply makes sense. To find out more about how to write in plain language, visit the National Partnership for Reinventing Government Web site at

How will NIH implement the initiative?

Under the leadership of Karen O'Steen, director of the NIH executive secretariat, NIH has taken several steps to implement this Presidential directive. She has briefed institutes' and centers' correspondence contacts and has sent a memo to IC directors and OD staff. She has introduced a plain language section to the exec sec web site at In addition, O'Steen has organized a plain language coordinating committee composed of representatives from each IC. The PLCC has established three subcommittees: a media subcommittee that will address how NIH will inform staff and promote the initiative; a training subcommittee that will focus on how NIH will provide employees with the tools they need to write in plain language; and an evaluation and awards subcommittee that will determine how this initiative will be evaluated and successful efforts rewarded. The executive secretariat will soon include a list of IC representatives on its web site should you wish to contact yours with questions.

What resources are available?

The training subcommittee is developing a resource list of recommended sources and means of training, including videotape sessions, web-based training, and specialized group training. Also, training opportunities are already available through the NIH Training Center. At its web site,, under Communication Skills, you will find listed a course on Plain Language in Government Writing and a course on Scientific and Technical Writing. In addition, the executive secretariat is available to give you assistance with an individual document, refer you to resources, provide specialized training, and more. Contact them at 496-1461.

If you have succeeded in changing bureaucratese into plain language and wish to share the "before" and "after" documents, forward them to O'Steen in Bldg. 1, Rm. B1-44.

Up to Top