First Annual National Endowment for the Humanities Plain Writing Compliance Report

The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) has always attempted to publish documents written in plain, comprehensible English. Our efforts to that end preceded the passage of the Plain Writing Act of 2010, but we have recently intensified them.

We have focused our efforts to date on the writing and editing of application guidelines: the instructions for applicants to our grant programs. We currently administer approximately thirty-five grant programs, a list of which can be found here.

Because we have emphasized writing application guidelines in plain English, Joel Schwartz (NEH’s Chief Guidelines Officer, the official principally responsible for writing and editing these documents) is overseeing the agency’s Plain Writing initiative. One of his responsibilities is to ensure that the application guidelines are as comprehensible as possible.

NEH launched a new website on April 9, 2012. The website includes a Plain Writing section, to which readers are encouraged to respond.

It would be tedious to list multiple examples of guidelines language that we have streamlined and simplified. But to give you a sense of the sorts of changes we’re trying to make, we present two examples, taken from the guidelines for one program: the Sustaining Cultural Heritage Collections or SCHC program. In both cases, we have tightened the language. (In the first case, we have also tightened the requirement.)

Old version: “Planning grants focused on exploring sustainable preventive conservation strategies are especially encouraged.”
Current version: (see page 2 of the program guidelines PDF, available at the SCHC link above): “Planning grants must focus on exploring sustainable preventive conservation strategies.”

Old version: “It is expected that SCHC planning grants would address complex preservation challenges that require an interdisciplinary team to arrive at possible solutions.”

Current version: (see page 4 of the program guidelines PDF): “NEH expects that SCHC planning grants will address complex preservation challenges, which only an interdisciplinary team can solve.”

To be sure, the guidelines for many NEH grant programs inevitably employ a number of technical terms. For example, all of the individual words “sustainable preventive conservation strategies” are comprehensible, but an applicant would need some technical knowledge—or at least to have been advised by someone with the requisite technical knowledge—to know what a sustainable preventive conservation strategy is, and how to craft one. On the other hand, only an applicant with that level of technical knowledge could write a competitive application.

Similarly, another NEH grant program (Preservation Assistance Grants or PAG program) permits applicants to apply to purchase “environmental monitoring equipment (for example, dataloggers, hygrothermographs, and light meters).” (See page 3 of the program guidelines PDF, available at the PAG link above.) Again, an applicant would need considerable technical knowledge—or to be advised by someone with such knowledge—to know what a datalogger or a hygrothermograph is. But once again, only an applicant with that level of technical knowledge could write a competitive application.

In short, NEH application guidelines inevitably contain a certain amount of specialized, technical vocabulary. But subject to that constraint, NEH has attempted, is attempting, and will continue to attempt to write application guidelines that are as clear and as comprehensible as possible.

Joel Schwartz, NEH’s Chief Guidelines Officer, prepared this report.