new momentum for plain language in government

House and Senate committees are currently reviewing two bills that call for federal agencies to use simpler, clearer language in public documents. Both H.R. 946, the “Plain Language Act of 2009” and S. 574, the “Plain Writing Act of 2009” have been proposed in order . . .

As reported by the Center for Plain Language, this is the second go-around for these bills, which were introduced by Rep. Bruce Braley (D-IA) in the House and Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-HI) in the Senate. The previous attempt to pass similar legislation in 2008 led to its passage in the House, but the Senate version did not make it out of committee for a vote. If passed, the legislation would require federal agencies to ensure that their public documents in print and electronic form are written using language that can be understood by their intended audiences — that is, the general public.

So what is “plain language,” and what does it mean for you?

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does your past have a future?

HourglassWould you deliberately set fire to your family’s photo albums? Wantonly wave an electromagnet over cassette recordings of your child’s first words? Smash your copy of the White Album into fragments with a hammer? Shred your grandparents’ love letters?

Of course not.

But if you’re using popular media formats to store your digital pictures, music, and e-mails, you might as well be.

Andrea Japzon wants you to ponder that — and then get busy preserving your digital legacy.

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get ’em while they’re hot

Regular reader Andrea has just alerted me to the fact that Ultimate Office is currently offering its Jotz Spiral Notebooks at a deep discount of $5 each! That includes five PocketFile folders and 60 pages of ruled 80# paper.

While the Spiral is not the same as the late, lamented, and legendary Jotz Refillable Notebook, it has many of the same features that endeared the Refillable to its die-hard fans — extra-thick poly covers, bungee closure, and of course those color-coded finger rings.

Last time I talked with Ultimate Office about the availability of new Refillables, they had given up all hope that their supplier would be able to overcome its manufacturing problems, and were referring people to Levenger’s Circa products. As undeniably great as Circa is, and as grateful as I am that Rollabind is finally bringing a slew of new business products to market, the Jotz Refillable was, IMNSHO, the quintessentially perfect disc notebook.

Which is not to say you shouldn’t grab some Spirals while they last. Thanks for the heads-up, Andrea! And feel free to post a review in the Comments section once you’ve put them through their paces.

this is not your father’s library

Library bookshelvesWe’ve heard it so often, it seems like a truism: in this era of instant electronic information access, libraries are like dinosaurs that don’t know they’re already extinct.

Well, maybe not.

A new survey has found that Generation Wired uses libraries far more often than you might think. In fact, Internet-savvy youth between 18-30 are the largest user group for library research services and resources. Furthermore, the survey found that library usage actually declines with increasing age.

The survey, a joint project of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Graduate School of Library and Information Science, Princeton Survey Research Associates International, and the Pew Internet & American Life Project, featured telephone interviews with nearly 3,000 U.S. residents 18 years old or older.

You can download a free PDF of the survey report, Information Searches That Solve Problems: How People Use the Internet, Libraries, and Government Agencies When They Need Help, from the Pew website.

Image: iStockPhoto.com

nara’s new ‘era’: 40 years in the making

Streams of binary digitsOn Tuesday, I participated in a webinar hosted by Government Computer News on “The E-Records Management Tsunami: NARA’s Electronic Records Archive to the Rescue.” It featured Michael Carlson, Director of the National Archives and Records Administration’s (NARA) Electronic and Special Media Records Services Division and was hosted by Joab Jackson, GCN’s chief technology editor. A recording of the seminar is now available (60 min., Real Audio), and it is well worth a listen.

Will NARA succeed in its multimillion dollar effort to solve the federal government’s electronic information management crisis?

Maybe — but we’ll have to wait five years to find out . . .

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you can teach old writers new media

MagicianWhether you write to sell, invite, entice, or provoke, your words can’t do their job unless the audience sees them. In professional writing, distribution is everything. The availability of new electronic distribution technologies only increases the opportunities — and the challenges — for reaching them.

Here are two interesting recent articles on the intersection of writing and distribution, with significant implications for writers:

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study confirms best companies include writers from the beginning

The most successful companies bring their technical writers into the loop at the outset of a project, according to a new study by the Aberdeen Group. Back in February, I blogged about the importance of including writers from the earliest stages of a project; it’s good to see that there is evidence to bear out my contention of the writer’s added value.

According to the Society for Technical Communication, the study, which was co-sponsored by STC, the UK-based Institute of Scientific and Technical Communicators, and the Center for Information-Development Management, that finding was among the most important results of an online survey of over 300 companies.

The study report, The Next-Generation Product Documentation Report: Getting Past the “Throw it over the Wall” Approach by Chad Jackson and Mehul Shah, looked at five key performance indicators:

  • product launch date
  • documentation cost
  • translation cost
  • documentation purpose
  • documentation quality

Nearly three-quarters of the respondent companies that scored highest on these five indicators reported that they launched their documentation and product development processes simultaneously. According to the study, top-ranking companies were also likely to:

  • integrate the documentation staff into the engineering department;
  • rely on document authoring tools that facilitate content repurposing;
  • use software to minimize content localization lags; and
  • measure readability by tracking content resue.

Managers, the results are in: keep your friends close, but keep your technical writers closer.

practical advice for writers

Have you ever heard someone described as “a writer’s writer?” I certainly have, but I confess that I’ve never understood what it means. To me, the real mark of distinction is to be considered “a reader’s writer” — a writer who is keenly attuned to the needs and expectations of the audience above all.

Quinn McDonald is a quintissential reader’s writer. She’s also an eagle-eyed editor, an artist in several media, and a creativity coach. On her blog, Quinn frequently addresses issues of interest to writers and editors, distilling her years of professional experience into pithy and often provocative advice. Here are two of my recent favorites:

Writer’s Dilemma:”

“And then you find out your client’s client is a company whose goals you disagree with. Not just a little. A lot. There’s a wide breach between your beliefs and the company’s. What do you do?”

Freelance Frustration:”

“Freelancers will almost always jump through some hoops, even ones that are on fire, to please a client. We sympathize with your emergencies, unless we sense you don’t care.

Disclaimer (which doubles as a plug): I am working with Quinn to develop two lines of index card templates for some exciting new projects that she is developing. Check back with her site regularly to find out more. Better yet, subscribe to her blog and make it part of your morning’s reading!

some thoughts about the SAA listserv story

It seemed like the perfect irony: “Archives Organization to Delete Its Own Archives.”

Variations of this headline appeared on quite a few blogs last week when the Society of American Archivists (SAA) announced its intention to delete the accumulated e-mail traffic on its listserv, which dated back to 1993. The SAA’s explanation was that cost of maintaining the list was outweighing its usefulness. Following standard archival procedure, archivists appraised the collection to assess its informational and evidentiary value (that is, to determine whether the collection warranted preservation either because of the long-term value of the information it contained, or because of the value of the collection as a unique artifact in and of itself) and determined that the collection could be discarded.

The outcry that followed, and the subsequent decision by the SAA to forego discarding the collection in favor of trying to find a permanent home for it, provided a telling example of how archives are perceived — and misperceived — by the world at large.

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