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Friday, August 10, 2012

Drafting Legal Documents, Principles of Clear Writing | U.S. National Archives

Hey, wait! Stop! The headline says this article is about "Drafting Legal Documents." But it's not just that. Instead, this article is about "Principles of Clear Writing." And that's for all kinds of documents. So, please, stick around. I'll tell you more!

The article gets right to the point, listing 24 guidelines and providing many examples in a clear "Say ..., Don't Say ..." format.

Here are the guidelines:
  1. Write in the active voice. ...
  2. Use action verbs. ...
  3. Use "must" instead of "shall". ...
  4. Be direct. ...
  5. Use the present tense.  ...
  6. Write positively. ...
  7. Avoid use of exceptions. ...
  8. Avoid split infinitives. [My advice: Many readers were taught incorrectly that splitting infinitives is bad grammar. It's not, as most writing experts agree. So go ahead and use split infinitives, but because of that incorrect understanding of the "rule," make sure inserting a modifying word is the strongest, clearest way to write the sentence.] 
  9. Use the singular noun rather than the plural noun. ...
  10. Be consistent. Don't use different words to denote the same things. ... Using a synonym rather than repeating the precise term you intend just confuses the reader.  ...
  11. Use parallel structure. ... This is important when you use a list. ...
  12. Prefer simple words. ...
  13. Omit needless words. ...
  14. Avoid redundancies. Don't use word pairs .... any and all, full and complete ...
  15. Use concrete words. ...
  16. Don't use words that antagonize. ... Use words to which people react favorably rather than words that they resent. ...
  17. Avoid noun sandwiches. ... groups of nouns "sandwiched" together. ...
  18. Don't use gender-specific terminology. ...
  19. Write short sentences. Readable sentences are simple, active, affirmative, and declarative. ...
  20. Make lists clear and logical in structure. ...
  21. Use short paragraphs. ... Each paragraph should deal with a single, unified topic. ...
  22. Use a checklist and review your draft for each of these principles separately.
Cross References
  1. Use cross references sparingly and carefully. ...
  2. Make a cross reference a reader's aid. If you find it necessary to include a cross reference, cite the specific section designation. ...
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This article is featured today (Aug. 10) in Garbl's Plain English Paragraphs -- available at the Plain Language tab above and by free email subscription. For more advice on this topic, see Garbl's Plain English Writing Guide

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