Write with clarity and simplicity. Below are some rules that can help make your writing easier to understand.
Target a 6th grade reading level
Overall, your goal in writing should be to make it readable by someone with a 6th grade education level. Studies consistently show that the average American can read and understand content written at an 8th grade level, with significant numbers of Americans reading at a lower level.
You can measure the readability of your text with automated tools:
- in Docassemble, by clicking the "source" button
- by installing the free WriteClearly bookmarklet
- by using free tools such as Hemingway
However, learning to write clearly is not just about getting a good "grade" on your writing from one of the tools listed above. Try reading the rules below. Start out with these rules in mind before you write.
Write in active voice, not passive voice
It can be a difficult concept to describe, but this convention can be very helpful.
Below, you can see a summary of some useful articulations found in this article about the topic from the University of Arizona writing center.
Tips to locate and avoid passive voice?
Does it make sense?
If you can say the subject, action, and object in the order they appear in the sentence and it makes sense, you have written in active voice. For instance, you can say "Sally drove car" [re: Sally drove the car off the cliff] and can understand the meaning. However, if you say "Car driven Sally" [re: The car was driven off the cliff by Sally] it does not make sense; this scenario would indicate that you wrote the sentence in passive voice.
Look for "by" phrases
For example, "by Sally" or "by the dog" might be a sign that the sentence is passive voice.
Look for a form of "be"
Look for words like is, was, were, are, or been. These words might signal passive voice.
Write out "or" rather than using
/ to separate related concepts or and/or
Avoid "and/or" all together. Avoid this Janus-faced term. It can often be replaced by "and" or "or" with no loss in meaning.
If you think the "and/or" concept is important in a sentence, use this format instead: "Option one or option 2 or both." For example, use "Take a sleeping pill or a warm drink, or both." Do think about other possibilities. For example, "Take a sleeping pill, maybe with a warm drink."
You can read more in the Chicago Manual of Style
Avoid contractions (can't, don't)
Write out the words instead, like "cannot" or "do not".
Avoid idioms ('get the hang of it', 'sit tight')
Other examples: Up in the air, on the ball, rule of thumb.
Use simple words
Below is a shortened version of the list. Whenever it is possible, replace the words in the left column with the words in the right column.
|Replace this||Use this|
Use short sentences without multiple clauses
Shorter sentences are usually easier to read. Sentences that say only one thing are also usually easier to read.
Say what to do. Avoid saying what not to do.
It is usually easier to understand rules as a positive rather than a negative.
Avoid: Be careful not to leave information out of your description.
Use: Use lots of details in your description.
Ask one question per sentence
A compound question asks the user to answer more than one thing in the same question.
Avoid: Do you currently have a case in the Probate and Family Court or are you planning to file one?
Consider: Tell us about your cases
I have a case in the Probate and Family Court now.
I am planning to file a case in the Probate and Family Court.
Other content resources
- How to write good legal stuff
- Readable Info Sheet
- Make it Readable cheat sheet
- UK.gov style guide - online
- En rules or em dashes (google search for this)
- Mass Legal Services page w/ info Caroline wrote
- MailChimp style guide
- Gerunds and Participles: Avoiding -ING words
- LSC-funded readability materials and course
- Plain Language Guide, National Association for Court Management