Interpreting government documents takes a degree

I like to think of myself as an educated woman. I have a college degree. I like to add to my collection of generally useless knowledge by reading a great variety of books on politics, science, hobbies, fiction, etc.

In my college classes, I plowed through Shakespeare, a variety of philosophers, theories and academic journals.

I have to admit that sorting through all those dusty academic journals and out-of-date research books has helped me a great deal in my job.

It's helped me sort out the gobbledygook, extra words and double speak I find in a lot of governmental records. Although there are still times after reading government documents when I find myself scratching my head in puzzlement.

The problem with some government documents is that they are so full of extraneous words, jargon and legalize that it is hard for a regular citizen to understand the inner workings of their own government.

In other words, the government of the people doesn't speak the people's language. How is a resident to know if a particular resolution or ordinance passed by the local City Council, school board or Board of Supervisors is in the best interest of the public if they can't understand it?

A good example of this government bureaucratize can be found in the Planning and Zoning Commission's agenda.

Here's how an item for the next Commission meeting is listed on the agenda:

"Evaluation of a request for a rezone of the NE 1/4 NE 1/4 SW 1/4 NW 1/4 excluding the forty square-foot parcel located on the SW corner thereof, in Section 13, Township 39 North, Range 16 West, from R-E/2A (residential-recreation/two acre minimum lot size) zone to A-R/1A (agricultural-residential/one acre minimum lot size) zone, in the Arizona Strip Area (approximately one mile east of Scenic Boulevard between Lead Mine Road and Red Hawk Road), Mohave County, Arizona."

I've lost track of how many times I've had an editor ask me, "Where is this property?" and I've had to answer with "ah, I think it's somewhere on the Arizona Strip."

Actually, all that NE 1/4 NE 1/4 in the SW corner of Section 13, Township 39 stuff is the legal description of the property. It makes sense if you have a zoning map of the area.

I'm not trying to pick on the Planning and Zoning Department. The wonderful people in that department try their best on a daily basis to explain building codes, zoning regulations, area plans and the county General Plan to contractors, builders, property owners and reporters like me.

A lot of city, county, state and federal documents like those from the Planning and Zoning Department have to follow some kind of government-mandated form. But whoever created those forms must have been a lawyer with a thick thesaurus, a bad sense of humor and an aversion to simple words.

Sometimes I'd like to send those lawyers or technical writers back to school to learn how to really write.

I can remember teachers in grade school telling me that the more simple a sentence is, the easier it is to understand. One of my favorite history teachers in high school gave me a simple pattern to follow when writing an essay, "Tell 'em what you're going to say, say it, and tell 'em what you said."

Translated, it means this: in the first paragraph, summarize what your essay is about. Then in the second, third and four paragraphs, describe in detail each point you made in the first paragraph. In the last paragraph, resummarize everything. A common mantra in my journalism classes was "write it so someone with an eighth-grade reading level can understand it."

There's a reason why we are told all this in school. It doesn't mean that people are uneducated. It's just that people don't have a lot of time to sit and read a complex story. It's easier to read if you don't have to stop after every paragraph and go find a lawyer or a government official to explain what you just read.

Just think of the time that would be saved if all government documents were written in a way that people could understand them.

Maybe the wheels of government would turn a little more quickly and solutions to some really pressing problems, like health care, poverty and education could be found.