If you need to draft in plain English, what can you do?
There will be times you’ll need to draft in plain English. A corporate client needs a revised employee manual. Your supervisor asks you to draft a disclaimer for the firm’s website. A nonprofit organization you represent needs a basic contract. Or you need to write the “forepart” of an SEC registration statement, which, since 1998, must be in plain English.
So here are three recommendations for getting up to speed on plain English:
1. Read up on it.
Get familiar with the literature in the field. Yes, I’m going to plug my own book here:
- Wayne Schiess, Plain Legal Writing: Do It.
But here are two other excellent sources for expert guidance on plain-English writing:
- Joseph Kimble, Lifting the Fog of Legalese: Essays on Plain Language (Carolina Academic Press 2006).
- Rudolf Flesch, How to Write Plain English: A Book for Lawyers and Consumers (Harper & Row 1979).
These books will take you beyond simple mantras like “dumb it down” and “write it so your mother could understand it.” They’ll give you concrete, reliable guidance on revising traditional legal language into plain English.
2. Assess yourself.
You can use your word processor to assess the plainness of your text. It will measure the average sentence length—aim for 20 or below. It will tell you the Flesch Reading Ease Score, which ranges from 0 to 100; the higher the score, the easier the text is to read. And it will tell you the Flesch-Kincaid grade level: the numbers of years of schooling a reader would need to understand the text; a passage with a higher score is harder to read.
To do this in Word 2007, find the “Office” button—on the top left with the multicolored logo—then:
- select Word Options > Proofing
- find the section called “When correcting spelling and grammar in Word”
- check the box for “Check grammar with spelling”
- check the box for “Show readability statistics”
While you’re there, consider clicking “Settings” and unchecking all (or most of) the grammar and punctuation items. This will prevent you from having to go through a grammar-check every time you run a spell-check. The grammar check is not a useful tool. Now, each time you spell-check, you’ll get a statistical analysis of your text.
The analysis will show your average sentence length and the numerical Flesch scores. Remember, these scores come from a computer algorithm that measures words and sentences and has no human insights; it can’t tell sense from nonsense.
But if you’ve written a document intended for nonlawyers that has a Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level of 19 (that’s college plus three years), you should probably work on simplifying the text. Likewise, since a Flesch Reading Ease score of 60 is “plain,” if your Flesch Reading Ease Score is in the 20s or 30s (even the 40s might be tough for nonlawyers), it may be time for some pruning and revising.
3. Test your text.
Ask a trusted friend or relative who is not a lawyer to read the text. Then ask follow-up questions. Or ask where the reader got lost or felt “legalese” creeping in. Then revise accordingly.