Speaking the Right Language
Turning abstract concepts into words is a hard problem. Interactive legal applications are expected to take complex legal rules and create a user experience that:
- Accurately informs the user about the app's purpose and scope
- Helps the user understand if they should use the app
- Educates the user on each legal element
- Guides them to correctly entering factual information about their case
- Correctly provides clear (unambiguous) guidance as to the user's next steps, or creates legal pleadings that do the same
Readability is not just about reaching people with lower reading comprehension skills. Simpler language can remove ambiguities.
The state of readability
Studies show that the average reading grade level in the United States is between 6th and 9th grade, although it may be lower for many populations who are most at risk of falling into the access to justice gap. Most Americans also feel most comfortable reading at a grade level about 2 ranks below the level that they can fully comprehend. Therefore, we recommend that you aim for an audience between 4th and 6th grade reading level, not to exceed 8th grade.
How can you improve readability of your writing?
Guided interviews usually have much less writing than other kinds of web content. But it is important that the text that you do have is clear and easy to read. It usually delivers important context or instructions that your user needs to follow correctly to exercise their legal rights.
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
- In Microsoft Word, by using the built-in readability analysis feature
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.
Most of the guidance below can also be found on the Assembly Line Project's comprehensive guide to "writing good questions" (and was also written by this guide's editor, Quinten Steenhuis).
Use simple words
See the United States government's table showing how to simplify 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|
It's a good idea to draw most words from the list of the most common 2000 words in the English language. A vocabulary profiler can help you check to see if you are using uncommon words.
For a fun option, the UpGoer5 text editor allows you to type using only the most common 1,000 words.
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 short sentences without multiple clauses
Shorter sentences are usually easier to read. Sentences that say only one thing are also usually easier to read. A short sentence has fewer than 20 words.
Write in active voice, not passive voice
Active voice sentences make it clear who is doing what. Readers, especially those who read English as a second language, have an easier time reading sentences in the active voice. Active voice sentences are also less ambiguous than passive voice sentences. Sometimes passive voice sentences leave the subject out altogether.
The dog knocked over the lamp.
The lamp was knocked over by the dog.
Passive voice (even worse!)
The lamp was knocked over.
This article about the topic from the University of Arizona writing center has a helpful breakdown.
Tips to locate and avoid passive voice
Do the key words make sense on their own?
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 "to be"
Look for words like is, was, were, are, or been. These words might signal passive voice.
Use straightforward grammar
Ask one question per sentence
A compound question asks the user to answer more than one thing in the same question.
Two easy to read questions
Do you have a case in the Probate and Family court?
I have a case in the Probate and Family Court now.
I am planning to file a case in the Probate and Family Court.
One hard to read question
Do you currently have a case in the Probate and Family Court or are you planning to file one?
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
Write positive sentences that say what to do. Avoid saying what not to do.
Rules are easier to understand if they are written as positive statements. State the action that you want the user to take so they don't need to work it out on their own by reasoning backwards.
Use lots of details in your description.
Be careful not to leave information out of your description.
Put conditions (or choices) before actions
Instructions that are written in the form of "If condition then do action" are easier to follow than the reverse order. See Dixon, Peter (1987). (We learned about this study from Jarret and Gaffney (2009).)
Why? The user can stop reading the sentence as soon as they see that the condition does not apply to them.
Condition then action
If you need the judge to order something else, you can file a motion later.
Action then condition
File a motion if you want the judge to order something else.
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
Authors and acknowledgments
This article was written by Quinten Steenhuis.
Special thanks to Caroline Robinson, who was a plain language mentor for Quinten and helped form many of the ideas that are in this article.