English Works: Plain Language Pioneer
It’s not your imagination: Government public communications are increasingly easier to understand and to use, thanks to the 2010 federal Plain Writing Act--and one English alum. As Hennepin County’s Public Affairs Officer, Brian Lieb (BA 1991, MA 1996) led one of the country’s first plain writing programs. He created official writing standards. He developed and taught writing classes for hundreds of Hennepin County employees. He coordinated the revising of web content during the county’s website redesign—which was recognized in 2014 as the nation’s best large-population government website. When other public-sector organizations called for advice, he started Brian Lieb Communications to teach plain language writing outside of work hours. “I like working in the public sector,” he reports. “There are times when you know that your work can help improve people’s lives."
Before working for Hennepin County, you were a publications editor and coordinator here at the University of Minnesota. What, if anything, was challenging about moving from an academic to government environment?
The transition wasn’t particularly difficult. Like the U, Hennepin County is a large, diverse organization, so there’s an almost endless supply of topics to cover. Although the county is sorely missing a mascot.
We have many undergraduate students interested in writing and editing, but they don’t always think of careers like yours--where you write and edit news releases, web stories, and speeches, and help county departments plan and produce their public communications. Any advice for recent graduates?
I think part of the solution is to explain to potential employers how our skills can add value. All employers need people who can write clearly and effectively, and you can get your foot in the door with lots of different jobs. I started out as an academic advisor, but I took every opportunity to pad my resume with writing projects. I wrote staff communications and procedures, developed a website, and prepped handouts.
I also believe that my English courses helped me be a better problem solver by teaching me how to closely read text and craft complex theses. Again, every employer needs people who can figure things out and explain them to others.
When the federal Plain Writing Act passed in 2010, you had been with Hennepin County four years. How did it change your work?
The clout and notoriety of the plain language movement definitely made my job easier. Prior to then, most people resisted rewrites. If I told them I could help them communicate more clearly and effectively, they often told me exactly what I could do with my edits.
You do a lot of public speaking both for Hennepin County and as a freelance writing trainer. What helped you feel comfortable with that role?
I have a graduate minor in teaching English as a second language, so I do have some formal training. I also took every teaching and tutoring opportunity I could find when I was younger, so I had hundreds of hours of experience in front of people before I did my first big presentation. What I’ve learned is to prepare for everything. I try to anticipate any possible question, and I assume the audio-visual equipment might fail. That way I’m never thrown off-course.
What book(s) are you recommending these days?
I have teenage daughters, so I’ve spent the past few years reading quite a bit of young adult fiction. I’ll read anything by Lois Lowry, Rick Riordan, Laurence Yep, and Diana Wynne Jones, and I loved the Bartimaeus series by Jonathan Stroud.