“How to Write Good” – Help for Ad Writers from Federal Employees

Remember him? He wrote the book on getting free help and money from the federal government.

Many resources are available to assist aspiring ad writers, but who’d have thunk that Employees of the Federal Government of the United States would be among them?

Meet PLAIN, the Plain Language and Information Network, a group founded in the 1990s, whose lofty goal is no less than “…to promote the use of plain language for all government communications. We believe that using plain language will save federal agencies time and money and provide better service to the American public.”

Imagine: federal employees meeting monthly, on their own time and dime, to identify ways to improve communication between federal agencies and We the People.

Put me down for a big “Like.”

According to the group’s About Us page:

To promote plain language, we

  • offer limited editing services to all federal agencies
  • sponsor occasional seminars about plain language
  • comment on agency documents, especially regulations
  • offer a short half day introduction to plain language and writing for the web free of charge to any federal agency

To illustrate the advantages of plain language over government-speak, PLAIN provides a number of before-and-after illustrations.  For example:

When the process of freeing a vehicle that has been stuck results in ruts or holes, the operator will fill the rut or hole created by such activity before removing the vehicle from the immediate area.


If you make a hole while freeing a stuck vehicle, you must fill the hole before you drive away.

Has the Internal Revenue Service been made aware of this resource?

It appears that President Obama discovered PLAIN’s work and decided to make it an important part of his administration and legacy. Two years ago, he signed The Plain Writing Act of 2010, requiring that federal agencies use “clear Government communication that the public can understand and use.”  On January 18, 2011, he issued a new Executive Order, “E.O. 13563 – Improving Regulation and Regulatory Review.” It states that “[our regulatory system] must ensure that regulations are accessible, consistent, written in plain language, and easy to understand.”

Our government has not yet declared war on ad-speak, however.  I know this because:

1. Ad-speak is still ubiquitous in America. Cliché-ridden drivel permeates advertising in all media, and is no respecter of markets or budgets.

2. The government itself has mandated an entire category of ad-speak, otherwise known as “legal disclaimers.”  In print these disclaimers are usually buried at the bottom of an advertisement in type so small a magnifying glass is required to read them. Likewise, in TV commercials these disclaimers can be superimposed on the screen in a text format that is unreadable by most normal people. But in radio, alas, these disclaimers must be spoken, resulting in digitally compressed speed-read gibberish at the end of the spot. (Next time you hear one and shake your head in disbelief, remember: it’s your tax dollars at work.)

3. Worse, the government insists on foisting ad-speak on its citizenry.  Consider its recent mandate to protect undiscerning consumers of broadcast advertising from predatory politicians who might try to slip something past us when we’re not paying attention, by requiring them to proclaim: “I’m so-and-so and I approve this message.”  Ugh.

Fortunately, PLAIN has not hidden its efforts under a bushel, limiting access to its resources only to government agencies and employees.  Ad writers and producers working in the private sector have equal access to the gems reposited in their online treasury, such as this masterpiece by advertising copywriter Frank L. Visco, which first appeared in the June 1986 issue of Writer’s Digest: “How to Write Good.” 


by Frank L. Visco

My several years in the word game have learnt me several rules:

  1. Avoid alliteration. Always.
  2. Prepositions are not words to end sentences with.
  3. Avoid cliches like the plague. (They’re old hat.)
  4. Employ the vernacular.
  5. Eschew ampersands & abbreviations, etc.
  6. Parenthetical remarks (however relevant) are unnecessary.
  7. It is wrong to ever split an infinitive.
  8. Contractions aren’t necessary.
  9. Foreign words and phrases are not apropos.
  10. One should never generalize.
  11. Eliminate quotations. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said: “I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.”
  12. Comparisons are as bad as cliches.
  13. Don’t be redundant; don’t use more words than necessary; it’s highly superfluous.
  14. Profanity sucks.
  15. Be more or less specific.
  16. Understatement is always best.
  17. Exaggeration is a billion times worse than understatement.
  18. One-word sentences? Eliminate.
  19. Analogies in writing are like feathers on a snake.
  20. The passive voice is to be avoided.
  21. Go around the barn at high noon to avoid colloquialisms.
  22. Even if a mixed metaphor sings, it should be derailed.
  23. Who needs rhetorical questions?

A second set of rules, attributed to William Safire, follows Visco’s original twenty-three:

  1. Parenthetical words however must be enclosed in commas.
  2. It behooves you to avoid archaic expressions.
  3. Avoid archaeic spellings too.
  4. Don’t repeat yourself, or say again what you have said before.
  5. Don’t use commas, that, are not, necessary.
  6. Do not use hyperbole; not one in a million can do it effectively.
  7. Never use a big word when a diminutive alternative would suffice.
  8. Subject and verb always has to agree.
  9. Placing a comma between subject and predicate, is not correct.
  10. Use youre spell chekker to avoid mispeling and to catch typograhpical errers.
  11. Don’t repeat yourself, or say again what you have said before.
  12. Use the apostrophe in it’s proper place and omit it when its not needed.
  13. Don’t never use no double negatives.
  14. Poofread carefully to see if you any words out.
  15. Hopefully, you will use words correctly, irregardless of how others use them.
  16. Eschew obfuscation.
  17. No sentence fragments.
  18. Don’t indulge in sesquipedalian lexicological constructions.
  19. A writer must not shift your point of view.
  20. Don’t overuse exclamation marks!!
  21. Place pronouns as close as possible, especially in long sentences, as of 10 or more words, to their antecedents.
  22. Writing carefully, dangling participles must be avoided.
  23. If any word is improper at the end of a sentence, a linking verb is.
  24. Avoid trendy locutions that sound flaky.
  25. Everyone should be careful to use a singular pronoun with singular nouns in their writing.
  26. Always pick on the correct idiom.
  27. The adverb always follows the verb.
  28. Take the bull by the hand and avoid mixing metaphors.
  29. If you reread your work, you can find on rereading a great deal of repetition can be by rereading and editing.
  30. And always be sure to finish what

In short, PLAIN has provided a wealth of resources for anyone wanting to communicate more effectively, and they’ve done it out of the goodness of their collective hearts.

Bless ’em all.

About Rod Schwartz

Rod Schwartz backed into a lifelong career in radio advertising in 1973 in Springfield, Illinois. He joined the Pullman (Wash.) Radio Group in 1979, where he worked until his retirement at the end of 2022. Since 1991, Rod and his family have operated Grace Broadcast Sales (GraceBroadcast.com), providing short-form syndicated radio features to radio and TV stations across the U.S. and Canada. Rod also operates an independent advertising, marketing, and communications consultancy for small business owners and professionals, FirstStrikeAdvertising.com. An avid photographer, Rod shares some of his favorite images of the Palouse at PalousePics.com and on his Viewbug gallery.
This entry was posted in Advertising (General), Business, Communication, Copy, Copywriting, Newspaper, Print, Productivity, Professional Services Advertising, Proofreading, Radio Advertising, Radio Commercials, Radio Copywriting, Radio Production, Storytelling, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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