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When Plain Speech Becomes Sloppy Writing

I have been reading my health plan's new description of plans and benefits, which came in the mail recently. The company is raising health care premiums 13 percent. As someone who already pays over $800 each month for coverage for our family of three, I am reading the information carefully in search of ways to cut our costs responsibly.

In my careful reading, I came across these folksy headings:

"Here's the stuff you need to know so there are no surprises down the road."

"Yes, here's more fine print, but please give it a read. It's important stuff."

Stuff? Give it a read? Important stuff?

I am all for a breezy, informal style. I nearly always use one on this blog, but I am not writing to customers about health care benefits and costs. 

In a booklet called "Individual & Family Plans: A Summary of Benefits," I would prefer plain, careful writing, especially when I am trying to save money.

I also dislike vague descriptions such as the glossary entry given for coinsurance: "This is the percentage of the cost of the care you receive." Hmmm. Which percentage? Whose percentage? Why is it called coinsurance? Does it mean I have to pay something–is that the "co" part?

Am I just grouchy because I don't want to pay more? I don't think so. I think I am simply wishing for a businesslike tone in this business communication.

What do you think?

Syntax Training

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

4 comments on “When Plain Speech Becomes Sloppy Writing”

  • I’m with you, Lynn, especially since this document gives you ‘bad news.’ It is always a challenge to do policy-speak in a humane way, but this writer’s ‘buddy-buddy’ tone is likely to rub many readers besides you the wrong way.

  • Lynn,

    You may be grouchy over this, but with good reason! “Stuff”?!? Ridiculous. In a publication like that one, you are seeking clear, concise information. You need answers to your questions! This sort of sloppiness really infuriates me. Do they think you won’t notice the bad news if they pretend to be your buddy? Never, never take the intelligence of your reader for granted.

  • Hi, McClain. You’re right: Buddy-buddy is a perfect description of the tone that didn’t suit the message. Thanks for that label.

  • Hi, Mary. Thanks for your feisty, energetic comment! We agree!

    (I needed two exclamation marks to match your energy.)

Comments are closed.