Episode 73: August 30, 2007
Grammar Girl here.
Today’s topic is readability. And just to mix things up, I’m bringing in Adam Freedman to host today’s show. Adam is our resident Legal Lad on the Quick and Dirty Tips Network as well as the author of The Party of the First Part, a witty, entertaining book about legalese.
I figure if Adam can make legal documents readable, then he must be on to something. Adam?
Thanks Grammar Girl!
“I love being a writer,” a novelist once said. “What I can’t stand is the paperwork(1).” It’s an amusing quip, but there’s also a real truth to it. The decidedly un-glamorous task of formatting documents is an essential part of good writing. This is especially true of legal documents which, if not watched very carefully, can spiral out of control until you find yourself expunging an aforementioned lis pendens that you didn’t even know you had.
The best writers (including legal writers) follow these rules for producing readable documents.
Use a Table of Contents
First, use a table of contents for documents longer than about 10 pages. Whether it’s a book or a legal “brief,” reading a thick document is kind of like taking a trip – you want to have a map. A table of contents helps prepare the reader for the journey ahead.
Use Serif Fonts and Ample White Space
Next, use an eye-friendly font and ample white space between blocks of text. Don’t overwhelm the reader with pages of dense, single-spaced text in a swirly, fussy, hard-to-read font. Choose a clean serif typeface, like Times New Roman, for printed documents Serifs, by the way, are those little decorative embellishments you see on the top and bottom of letters. Fonts that don’t have these little do-dads – like Arial – are called sans-serif and they work better for online text (2).
Whatever font you use, avoid setting text in ALL CAPS. The uniform size makes it notoriously difficult to read, and online it is considered the equivalent of shouting.
These formatting tips may seem trivial at first, but they really aren’t. Like bad grammar, bad presentation can distract the reader or – even worse – cause the reader to give up on your document altogether.
Divide the Document Into Sections
Next point: break up your text into manageable chunks by using short sections or sub-dividing longer sections. You should group related material together and order your sections in a logical sequence. Typically, you’ll want to put the general before the specific, and the more-important before the less-important.
For example, let’s say you’re writing a booklet about the rules of the road. You might want to start with the bit about “red means stop and green means go” before tackling, say, the parking regulations of Tuscaloosa. Somewhere in the booklet, you’ll probably have a section on driving with children. But since that’s a big topic, you’ll want to divide that section into sub-sections, like
Use of child seats
Children and airbags
Leaving children unattended in cars
[A hint on that last sub-section--don’t.]
Use Headings and Other "Signposts"
OK, now that you’ve got sections, you need section headings. Headings should use straightforward language; this is not the time to show off your wit. For example, in your hypothetical booklet about the rules of the road, that section on child safety should probably have a heading called “Driving with Children” rather than “Mommy on Board!” or something equally, er, cute.
Finally, even with headings and sub-headings, you’ll still want to use transitional sentences as “signposts” for the reader.
Keep Sentences Short
Speaking of sentences, keep yours as short as possible. Like this. Actually, they don’t need to be that short, but a good rule of thumb is to keep your average sentence length to 20 words or fewer.
Long sentences afflict legal and technical writing, partly because writers tend to cram lots of conditions and qualifiers into their sentences. When you feel this temptation, consider turning the sentence into a numbered or bulleted list. Here’s an example of an over-stuffed sentence from a typical insurance policy:
The due observance and fulfillment of the terms so far as they relate to anything to be done or complied with by the Insured and the truth of the statements and answers in the [Application] shall be conditions precedent to any liability of the Company to make any payment under this Policy.
Wow. That sentence is trying to do a lot, but unfortunately, it ends up doing nothing – because nobody can understand it. Here’s a better way to convey the same information:
We will only make a payment under this policy if
1. You have followed the terms of the policy; and
2. The statements and answers in your application are true
Avoid Unnecessary Jargon
One final point, particularly for the lawyers in the audience, is to avoid unnecessary jargon in your writing. You may enjoy words like herewith, witnesseth, and arguendo for their “ye olde” flavor, but don’t put them in documents that you expect other people to read.
And if you’re wondering what to do with all that leftover legalese, you can always send it to me. My website, www.partyofthefirstpart.com, has a Legalese Hall of Shame. Your submissions are always welcome.
That’s it for readability. As legal writing instructor Joe Kimble likes to tell his students — Go Forth and Simplify.
Thanks, Adam. Again, his website is partyofthefirstpart.com, and you can check him out right here on QDT as Legal Lad.