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themselves. Getting the “content” right

is small consolation if our readers don’t

understand what we’re trying to say or

lose interest before we get to the point.


The Economist

style guide advises,

“Readers are primarily interested in

what you have to say. By the way in

which you say it you may encourage

them either to read on or to give up.”

A case in point is the annual Human

Rights Report, which is one of the State

Department’s oldest and best-known

publications. When the 2014 report was

released in June of that year, Secretary

of State John Kerry said he hoped the

HRR will “inspire us—people here and

around the world—between this year

and next to take more steps, hopefully

giant steps, in the direction of greater

justice, wider decency and peace.”

This is a noble hope, yet one poorly

served by the HRR’s dull format and

style. Instead of a passionate defense

of human rights, the HRR has become

a drab laundry list of “human rights

practices” from around the world,

presented in formulaic prose. Even the

most shocking human rights abuses are

discussed in a clinical style more befit-

ting an instruction manual.

A report documenting such atroci-

ties should shock, or at least stir, the

senses. Instead, the HRR dulls and

then paralyzes our senses with its rigid,

coma-inducing style. The end result

is a report that has the opposite of its

intended effect. After reading the coun-

try reports on even the most egregious

human rights violators, my reaction is

always the same—“It’s not as bad there

as I thought.”

What to Do

Some will argue that a more conver-

sational style doesn’t fit well with the

complex issues we often write about.

Critics will say that “weighty” subjects

like trafficking in persons or prolifera-

tion of WMD don’t lend themselves to

plain English.

The critics are wrong. Read Kathryn Schulz’s July 2015 New Yorker piece,

“The Really Big One: An earthquake will

destroy a sizable portion of the coastal

Northwest. The question is when” (now

that’s a subject line!). Read a piece on by Harvard profes-

sor Stephen Walt, or something in



by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and you’ll

see that serious subjects can be written

about in a way that’s engaging, even

engrossing. Studies have also shown

that using simpler language can make

you look smarter, while larding your

prose with big words and pompous

jargon will do the opposite.

So what might be the basis for a

more readable State Department style?

First, I’d ditch the “State Department”

or “government” qualifier. Good writing

is good writing, whether it’s in a maga-

zine, newspaper or talking points—the

same rules apply everywhere. As the

author of

The Book on Writing

, Paula

LaRocque, writes, “simplicity, clar-

ity and brevity are the most important

criteria for all writing.”

To this I would add the advice of

author William Zinsser: “Good writing

has an aliveness that keeps the reader

reading from one paragraph to the next.

. . . It’s a question of using the English

language in a way that will achieve the

greatest clarity and strength.”

A final, and very simple—but usually

ignored—rule is: never put in writing

what you would never say in conversa-

tion. As one Secretariat line staffer told

us last fall as we drafted talking points

for the Secretary, “imagine the Sec-

retary actually saying this to a foreign


So how do we get from here to a

more effective style? A few suggestions:

• Every new State Department

employee should be given two books:

The Book on Writing: The Ultimate Guide

to Writing Well

by Paula LaRocque; and

On Writing Well

by William Zinsser.

Both are quick, entertaining reads, and

their advice applies well to department


• The State Department and AFSA

should recognize in some way those

Foreign Service and Civil Service writers

who write with “aliveness, human-

ity, brevity, clarity and simplicity.”

The department could also ask people

on the Sounding Board to highlight

examples of good department writing

and announce a monthly winner on the

iNet homepage.

• Supervisors need to do a better job

of working with newer employees on

drafting skills. Make a point of sharing

good writing with your subordinates,

and explain what separates really effec-

tive writing from empty fluff.

• The department should recognize

offices and bureaus that best promote

“plain language,” as required by the

Plain Writing Act of 2010 (Public Law

111-274). Although most department

writing is exempt from the act, the prin-

ciples outlined in the law are still a good

idea. Simply following the guidelines

outlined on would

dramatically improve a lot of our writ-


• All bureaus that issue public

reports like the Human Rights Report

and Trafficking in Persons Report

should overhaul their format and style

requirements to make the reports easier

to read and require plain English. Doing

this will make our reports read like the

compelling human stories they are.

• Have some fun! Diplomacy is seri-