English lawyers should now write or draft legal documents in plain English. As we have seen, plain English is a modern style of writing which is clear and understandable to the person reading the document. In this post, we will explore some ways to help you begin to draft effectively in this style.
1. Keep Your Sentences Short
Writing in shorter sentences has many advantages. Shorter sentences are generally more readable, clearer, and more precise. As a general rule, try and keep your sentences to around 25 words or less. To do this takes discipline. However, if you follow the tips in this section, it should be easier.
A major tip here is that you try to make sure that every sentence only contains one main idea. Having more than one idea per sentence can make the sentence less clear.
How do you know if your sentence contains more than one idea? One possible sign of this is if your sentence contains conjunctions, such as ‘and’, ‘but’, or ‘or’. These conjunctions often introduce other ideas into your sentence. ‘Connecting’ words, such as ‘although’, ‘however’, ‘despite’, and so on, may have the same effect.
2. Avoid the Use of Adverbs Where Possible
Adverbs (words which modify or qualify an adjective, verb, adverb, or word group) can often add unnecessary length to your sentence, without adding substance. They can also make the meaning your sentence less clear. Words such as ‘fairly’, ‘actually’, ‘totally’, and ‘usually’ are good examples of overused and often unnecessary adverbs, but there are many more. Always ask yourself whether the adverbs you are using add anything meaningful to the sentence. If not, remove them. When something can be said with certainty, it should be.
3. Avoid the Use of the Passive Voice Where Possible
If you have the choice to use the active voice, rather than the passive, you should use it. The problem with the passive voice is that it is used – often by lawyers – to create vagueness, indirectness, or ‘distance’. It can also be used as a way of trying to avoid direct responsibility for something. Of course, sometimes these things are necessary, but often they are not. Passive sentences also add to your sentence word count.
4. Remove Redundant Words
Redundant words are words that add nothing to your message. Let’s look at an example:
We are going to have to cut down on the number of words contained in this document.
What are the redundant words and phrases in this sentence?
· The phrase ‘going to have to’ essentially means that at some time in the future, something must be done. It can be more clearly expressed using the modal verb ‘must’;
· The two-particle phrasal verb ‘to cut down on’ can, in this context, be as clearly and concisely expressed with the verb ‘to cut’;
· The word ‘contained’ adds nothing to the message and can simply be deleted.
Applying the above analysis, the sentence can be re-worded to read:
We must cut the number of words in this document.
5. Split Longer Sentences into Shorter Ones
If your sentence length is over 25 words, it is a good idea to ask yourself whether it can be split into two, or more, shorter sentences. For example:
The parties failed to incorporate a governing law clause into their contract and one consequence of this will be that, if a dispute arises, complex rules will apply to establish what the governing law should be, which of course would be likely to prove very costly for them.
The sentence contains 48 words. It could be ‘split’ in the following way:
The parties failed to incorporate a governing law clause into their contract. One consequence of this will be that, if a dispute arises, complex rules will apply to establish what the governing law should be. This, of course, would be likely to prove very costly for them.
The longer sentence has been split into three shorter sentences, with no loss of meaning. It is more readable, and it also uses fewer words. Both examples could easily be reduced in length still further, with no loss of the core messages in the text.
We’ll look at some more tips in the next post in this series.