As a professional copywriter and content strategist, I’m not one of the people who gains most from governments writing in plain language.
So when this insert turned up with my tax return earlier this year, I had a rare experience.
I read it four times. I still didn’t get it, and I felt dim.
What’s wrong with this insert?
I have no problem with the reason it exists. Typos happen.
But this essay is one of the best examples I’ve seen of further muddying the waters when trying to correct yourself. It uses almost every possible way of making its message less clear.
This kind of writing is so pervasive because it’s easy to do.
Many of us learnt to complicate our writing in secondary and tertiary education. Here, we were rewarded for using highly specialised words, writing more than needed and making a lack of ideas sound like ideas.
Few realise they’re applying these skills of complicating things as they write; it’s often one of those things people have done for so long it’s become invisible to them. So let’s break it down, using examples from the flyer.
How to make simple things hard
1. Use uninformative headings
When with a form that calculates tax, how about Tax calculation?
2. Insist you have a purpose… because you usually don’t?
The purpose of this flyer is…
3. State the obvious
Please ensure you take note of this when completing your return.
On behalf of Inland Revenue…
4. Emphasise something at random
…the enclosed 2018 IR3NR Income tax return.
5. Don’t align statements that need to be compared
6. Replace simple words with fancy ones
- Change wrong to incorrect
- Make problem into inconvenience
- Don’t tell, but advise.
7. Apologise like there are bodies yet to be found
“On behalf of the Inland Revenue, we apologise for any inconvenience this error may have caused you.”
8. Ask people to contact you for help, because they’ll need it
“Please call 0800 377 774 if you have any questions regarding your 2018 IR3NR.”
It doesn’t matter… it’s just an insert
If you think writing doesn’t matter, I suggest you stop doing it.
If this insert doesn’t need to be understood, it shouldn’t be there.
Tax is meant to make things fairer, and the consequences for not completing your tax return are significant, especially for those on low incomes. Why make it harder?
Plain language has been proven time and again to increase numbers getting through any process and improve your organisation’s reputation.
Where copy falls off a cliff
Writing like this is among the most important we ever do. It should get most of our attention, rather than the least of it.
Catherine Toole says we should look for places where copy falls off a cliff: help text, error messages and so on. When someone sees these, they’re about to make a mistake or leave the process.
Inland Revenue employs good writers. I’ve seen it produce good examples of plain language. This insert is likely more a case of allowing copy to fall off a cliff than obliviousness to why plain language matters.
You can have processes that make sure even hasty copy is clear and simple. I’ve seen it done. The first step is noticing where copy falls off a cliff, and finding ways to fence that edge.
What does a good one look like?
I don’t have Inland Revenue’s tone of voice guidelines, but here’s one idea:
Mistake in Question 28
We’re sorry. We made a mistake on your Non-resident Income Tax Return form (IR3NR) 2018.
The final sentence in Question 28 should read:
“If box 28I is larger than box 28J the difference is your refund.”
Send me writing that fell off a cliff
I’d like to make a series of plain language before and afters. I have a few up my sleeve, sadly, but you can still send any that cross your path to firstname.lastname@example.org.