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Archived from our former blog, The Beacon.

The USCIS Plain Language Program: Striving to Communicate More Clearly

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(By Kathryn Catania, Acting Chief of the Plain Language and Content Division, Office of Communications, USCIS)

Let’s face it: The immigration process can be complex and frustrating – even if you are a native-speaker of English. So just imagine how those who speak English as a second language sometimes feel. In many instances, it is not the complexity of a process or task that poses the greatest obstacle – but the dense, jargon-laced language that we use to describe it. In other words, how we communicate is just as important as what we communicate.

That’s why we started the USCIS Plain Language program, which teaches employees how to provide clear and usable information to those we serve. As head of the USCIS Plain Language program, I start by putting myself in the reader’s shoes. Before I put pen-to-paper, I ask three simple questions:
  • Who am I writing for? 
  • Will my audience understand what I’ve written? 
  • Will readers be able to act competently (if action is required) on the information I’ve provided?
We need to be mindful that not everyone is an immigration expert, understands complex legal references, or is familiar with the acronyms we use.

That’s why I'm so passionate about plain language, because at the end of the day, it's really about common sense and showing consideration and respect for those we serve. I also enjoy sharing the importance of writing clearly with others in government. On October 13, I had the chance to speak at the Center for Plain Language Workshop at the National Press Club.
Kathryn Catania speaks on plain language
Above: Kathryn Catania speaking on Plain Language
The workshop, attended by over 50 federal employees, was timed to coincide with the Plain Writing Act of 2010 going into effect. This law requires government agencies to write documents that the public can easily understand. At the conference different agencies discussed how they were working to start plain language programs for their employees. Since USCIS already has a program, I had the honor of sharing best practices with the attendees. USCIS provides employees with in-person classes, video conferences and educational videos (check them out on YouTube) that explain how to write for the reader by using:
  • Active voice – showing who is doing the action upfront in a sentence
  • Pronouns 
  • Short sentences and paragraphs
  • Lists of required items
  • Tables for complex "if"/"then" procedures
  • Words that don’t require the reader to pick up a thesaurus.
We also teach employees to remove excessive legalese from their documents and limit their use of jargon and undefined acronyms. USCIS also just held its annual Plain Language awards ceremony this past October 17, and awarded teams that:
  • Improved e-filing instructions on our website;
  • Provided clearer web pages on international adoptions in response to a Congressional inquiry;
  • Re-organized, shortened and clarified the information from the Customer Service Number;
  • Created the new Avoid Scams section of our website; and 
  • Wrote the I-9 Central web pages.
I want to thank those who have taken part in plain language training and worked to improve the way we communicate. By using plain language we can continue to effectively inform the people that we serve. I look forward to working with everyone as we continue with our mission.