Plain Language - Your consumer right, your organization's responsibility
Ever wonder why you get reams of paperwork from every business you deal with, and it's all impossible to read? Do they even want you to read it? If so, why use archaic, ugly, and difficult-to-decipher language? Things are changing. The world is ready for clear-speaking, and customers are demanding it. Is your organization ready? Let me help you improve documents, update your website, train your staff, motivate management. Get in touch.
Facts about plain language
Q. What is plain language?
"Plain language" means presenting information to people in a way that makes sense to them. It's writing, or any language, that is clear and understandable, so that it’s easy for people to get — and use — information that is important to a person's life. Knowing your audience and their needs is the first step to plain, clear communication.
Q. What do you mean by information that is "important to a person's life"?
Think of anyplace you’ve seen legalese in your own life: contracts, regulations, waiver forms and releases, even the agreement you have to sign whenever you install software or sign up for something online.
Q. Why is plain language important?
People have a right to understand the documents that affect their lives. If we are to be held accountable for following laws, we should be able to understand those laws.
We are all party to contracts in our lives, with the phone company, the cable company, our cell phone company, landlords or mortgage companies, credit card companies, and more. We should be able to understand what those contracts require of us.
Q. Don't legal documents have to be written in... um... "legalese"?
There is no reason that legal language — language regulating legal rights and duties — has to be incomprehensible. It can be made plain enough for its intended audience.
Plain legal language is being written every day. Those who defend out-dated, poorly-written gibberish on the grounds of its complexity should be embarrassed.
Q. Why don't people write plain all the time?
A few folks just don't feel like they're getting their money's worth if a lawyer writes in a way they can understand. And a few lawyers may defend "legalese," saying that it is more precise than plain English, and so is less likely to be misinterpreted.
Some say say plain language is "talking down" to people or "dumbing down." I have learned that real experts have internalized and integrated their special knowledge to the point where they can talk of it in simple language—without any mystery. Anyone who can't do that, and complains about being asked to "dumb it down," is a pompous ass.
To say a judge's decision is final and can't be challenged&emdash;in plain language&emdash;is as precise as saying that a case is dismissed "with prejudice."
Q. What is the biggest barrier to the wide use of plain language?
Lawyers need to develop new writing habits. That is all. Once you have learned to write legalese and you have done it for years, it is ingrained in your thinking patterns.
I have been working at plain language for 19 years, and still, my first drafts often follow traditional legal phrasing and sentence structure, and I have to think twice about word choices.
So make that two things: develop new writing habits, and allow yourself enough time for each writing project to do it right.
Q. So all I have to do is write like I talk?
Actually, there's much more to it than that. Plain language is about knowing and respecting the needs of your audience, about clear writing, and about clean design.
Q. What do you need to know to write in plain English?
We have a process which takes into account the reader's interest, reading skill, and need for the information. It is an elaboration of the classical approach to writing effectively.
By the way, we now talk about plain language instead of plain English, because the ideas apply to communication in any language. Whatever the language, the aim is clarity and usefulness of the information.
In English, a number of shortcuts and guidelines have been developed to help the person who is not a writer by profession. Most of the US state laws requiring plain English set out some of these as requirements or measurements of plainness. In Canada, the laws tend to demand qualities like "clear" or "readable" and so on.
Q. Are there any risks of using plain language?
Depends who does it. A person who is not well-versed in the law, in general, should not write contracts. But many organizations think they can write their own plain language contracts. I do not advise it because there have been lawsuits resulting when an amateur's rewrite changes the substantive content. Lawyers better do it.
Q. How do visual aids figure into plain language legal writing?
Charts, graphs, maps. These are increasingly being used as schedules to laws, by-laws, and contracts. For any legal matter that a firm handles regularly, the firm should (have an expert) develop some graphical resources for client use. These reinforce the message in your text.
Also, you have written on your blog about the different learning styles of students. People have different information-processing styles, too. So the more variety you use in correspondence, the more likely you are to get the information across.
For example, if clients are missing important appointments, consider using three tactics in future:
Myths about plain language
Plain language is the accepted standard in modern writing: the best practice. It offers benefits like customer-friendliness, time savings for staff, and marketing advantages. But there are many misconceptions about plain language, how it works, and who uses it.
Let me try to dispel some common myths.
Myth #1: There is only one plain language. Plain is plain.
Plain language is language that is easily understood by the
intended reader. It changes with different audiences. If you write for insurance agents you can use industry jargon. If you write for first-time auto-insurance buyers, you need to offer more definitions of insurance jargon. If your reader’s first language is not English, you need to avoid culturally-specific concepts.
Plain language is targeted to particular readers, so there is always a range of plain language.
Myth#2: Plain language documents are short.
To make information understandable, you have to provide disclosure, context, and definition. These may make your document longer that would otherwise be necessary.
Plain language documents are as long as necessary to provide the needed information, explain unusual terms or concepts, and fit the readers’ needs. Plain language is about giving all the necessary information and explanations. It is not about brevity.
Myth#3: Plain language is only about words.
Plain language has come to mean a modern communications process involving several stages. The process requires that you research the subject, research the readers' interests and abilities, brainstorm the purpose of the communication, plan the best format, draft by committee or individual, edit by a second person, lay-out and design to serve the purpose and message, try-out the document with readers who represent the target audience, revise the text and design after receiving feedback.
Plain language is a multifaceted approach to writing style and a communications process.
Myth #4: Plain language is OK for correspondence but we don’t have time for any new schemes.
Plain language is OK for correspondence and for every other kind of document you circulate internally or externally. It has been applied to contracts, annual reports, prospectuses, marketing brochures, forms and so on. Plain language is easily integrated into customer-service
or other communications or quality-improvement programs.
Myth #5: There are no plain language experts.
There is a wealth of research available to support best practice standards for plain language process and editing guidelines. For plain language writers, there are many courses available. Training is also available in how to conduct evaluations and audience research.
For example, in Sweden over 3 decades plain language consultants have graduated from a two-year college certificate program in plain Swedish. Centers of expertise operate in other countries. Plain language experts are found in many countries and in many industries.
Myth #6: Plain legal language may not be possible. The law has inherent complexities.
In “Style: Toward Clarity and Grace”, Joseph Williams wrote:
“Whether we are readers or writers, teachers or editors, all of us in professional communities must understand three things about complex writing:
Plain language in contracts could reduce the pressures on the courts.
In 1992 The Legal Writing Institute, then comprising more than 900 legal research and writing teachers, endorsed plain legal language, saying, “The language used by lawyers should agree with the common speech, unless there are reasons for a difference... Legalese is unnecessary and no more precise than plain language.”
Clarity is an international organization of over 800 lawyers, academics and others interested in simplifying legal language.
The US Securities and Exchange Commission has led the charge to demonstrate how companies can communicate in plain language. It released a guide, “The S.E.C. Plain English Handbook”.
Plain legal language is being written every day. Plain legal language may take more time, energy and resources but it is possible and always preferable.
Myth #7: Plain language leads to litigation.
Citibank came out with a plain language consumer note in 1973.
In 1978 New York passed a law requiring residential leases be in plain language. Since then over 30 states have legislated requirements for plain language in consumer finance, real estate and insurance documents. There has been no avalanche of lawsuits arising from the plain language. Not even a trickle.
Poor legal writing is poor legal writing – even when it is plain. Don’t blame the plain language, blame the drafter. In some contracts, the drafter has assumed that industry practice will still be used to interpret the language of the contract because this was done in the past when language was unclear or ambiguous. If the court finds that the plain
language of the contract is clear and self-explanatory, it will not look outside the contract for meaning.
The courts will not correct sloppy drafting by looking to the surrounding circumstances, the industry practice, or oral interpretations that were offered. In fact, courts have begun to say, The contract was in plain language. There was an obligation on the consumer to read it. They will be bound by the plain language of the contract.
If you are going to write a contract in plain language, make sure you know the law and know what you are doing.
Myth #8: Anybody can write a plain language document.
Anybody can excise a snakebite in an emergency, but, given the choice, would you have it done by your mechanic or your doctor?
Many organizations have their own staff write material according to prior precedents, and assume it will be satisfactory when it hits the
courts. Some try to do their own plain language revisions of legal documents. Anybody can rewrite a legal document but then, there is no guarantee that it will be legally effective. If you don't want to pay a lawyer to revise your documents, don't. But do send your plain language documents to your lawyer for a legal review.
There are lawyers who are also trained as plain language
writers so it is possible to do one-stop shopping for good quality, effective, plain language legal documents.
Break out of the mold and the myths.
Many of these myths are rooted in bad experiences or failed
attempts at plain language. If at first you don’t succeed with plain language, take some training, work with plain language consultants, ask your clients for feedback on your document style. You will find that your plain language gets easier and increases in effectiveness, with time and practice.
Plain language consistently creates more success stories than failures. Statistics show dollar savings and customer satisfaction arising from plain language. Forget the reasons not to, try plain language -- you’ll like it.
This article was written by Cheryl Stephens for original
publication in LegalFocus a (Vol.1 No.15) publication of the insurance industry, http://longwoods.com This version is updtaed.