Tag Archives: legal writing

Talking and Writing, Plain and Clear

“Plain language” is a movement away from legalese, and toward clear language that people can understand. It turns out that contracts and laws don’t have to be written in gobbledygook afterall.

My friend Cheryl Stephens has been a pioneer in the plain language movement. She’s on a blog tour this week, promoting her book, Plain Language Legal Writing.

I had the opportunity to ask her a question, so I gave it some thought. I’m a big fan of plain language — I think of myself as a plain language editor — but there’s one question I’ve been asked that’s been really hard to answer. So I picked that one to ask her. And apparently it was a good choice!

Q. “You tell me to write naturally, the way I would speak, but the truth is that I even talk this way — what you call “stuffy.” I have to struggle to avoid using complex sentences and big words, even when speaking. Does plain language apply to speech, and if so, can you suggest a manner in which I could revise my speaking to be more in keeping with plain language ideas?”

Guest answer, from Cheryl Stephens:
Plain language in oral discourse encompasses many of the plain language principles used in written communication, with added emphasis on the importance of considering your audience. Additional concerns are how people listen and process information and techniques you can use to be sure the message you intend to communicate is the one being communicated.

  1. Short sentences.
  2. Start with a human subject.
    I will, You do, He went, The doctor will…
  3. Use transition words and signal words, creating a word map.
    “There are 2 things to remember. First, … Second, …so that’s 2 things to do, then.”
  4. 3/7/15 rules.
    * Don’t use more than 3 examples or 3 items in a list. Break a longer list down to groups of 3 items.
    * Wait through 7 seconds of silence for a response so the listener can process your information and develop a reply.
    * While you won’t count your words as you speak, in oral presentations, a short sentence is less than 15 words.
  5. Watch your pronouns.
    Avoid using too many 3rd person pronouns (“He was her worst enemy.”). Listeners get lost trying to keep track of who you mean. Restate the original noun. Use personal pronouns to speak directly to the listener. “You are ……”
  6. Be positive.
    Beware of negative prefixes that get lost in the process of speech or hearing: illegitimate, impossible, unlikely and so on. This is a particularly important consideration if your listeners have English as a second language.

I discuss these and other tips on my website at CherylStephens.com.

Thanks for that, Cheryl! I think paying attention to plain language in speech is an important part of learning to write in plain language. And learning to write in plain language is vital to learning to write well.

I’m going to start doing a Q. and A. as a regular feature here, though I’ll usually answer the questions myself. Send me your questions, and I’ll answer as many as I can.