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Research Report: Checklist for writing in plain language

Checklist for writing in plain language

Centre for Plain Legal Language, 1993

Every document has its own purpose. This means that there is no formula for writing in plain language. But following those guidelines will remind you of things to look out for as you write.

Think before you write

  • who is the audience?
  • why are you writing this document?
  • what do you want to say?
  • what do you want your reader to do?

Think about the structure first
  • organise your ideas
  • put the most important ideas first
  • put qualifications and procedural details second
  • group together related material
  • use a decimal numbering system that shows hierarchy of the information.

Think about the content of each sentence and paragraph
  • address your readers directly
  • limit each paragraph to one idea
  • don't overload sentences
  • link your ideas
  • keep sentences and paragraphs short

Think about the language you use
  • prefer the active voice
  • avoid ambiguity
  • emphasise the positive
  • avoid double negatives
  • don't use "shall" or "can". If your readers must do it (mandatory), write "must". If they may do it (permissible), write "may".

Think about your choice of words
  • use everyday words unless this is really impossible
  • cut out unnecessary words
  • avoid jargon, technical words or "legal" expressions
  • if you have used a technical word, explain it
  • don't change verbs into nouns
  • avoid long strings of nouns
  • use acronyms sparingly - and only if your readers know what they mean.

Design your document to help your reader
  • make important information easy to find
  • use headings and sub-headings
  • highlight important messages
  • create a table of contents. In lengthy documents create an index based on the concepts you use
  • use typefaces that are easy to read and large enough to read
  • check that the colours of ink and paper contrast well
  • use graphics and illustrations where approproate
  • don't be afraid of "white space" - it adds air to the text.

Make sure you are writing plain language
  • ask someone to read your draft
  • don't "own" your draft. Accept criticism!
  • test the document with your readers.

Plain Language Materials Checklist

from Gateways to the Law: an exploratory study of how non-profit agencies assist clients with legal problems, S. Scott and C. Sage, Law and Justice Foundation of NSW, 2001

This checklist for plain language legal information has been compiled from interviews with community workers in which they were asked what they find effective in plain language materials about the law.

  • Use plain English – simple, clear, avoid long words, avoid legalese, not intimidating, easily digestible.
  • Limit the number of words on a page.
  • Produce information at several levels of complexity.
  • Strike a balance between too much and not enough information.
  • Produce materials in relevant community languages and include the English title on these.
  • Use a question and answer format.
  • Show the steps people need to follow using a simple flow chart or pictorial diagram.
  • Tell clients where they stand, where they can get further information, and what they should be considering.
  • Give readers an idea that they are not alone.
  • Provide details of other relevant services, including local services if possible.
  • Provide telephone interpreter service details on all resources and indicate whether charges will be paid for by the agency.
  • Provide examples of precedent letters.
  • Provide information about time limitations.
  • Provide information about what to expect when going to court.
  • Ensure that information is up-to-date, accurate and well researched.
  • Indicate the date on the resource.
  • Use eye-catching techniques e.g. colour, illustrations.
  • Use adequate font size.
  • Use coloured pictures. Photostories were identified as being particularly useful for people with poor English skills.
  • Use simple layout and compartmentalise the information.
  • Use small quick points.
  • Use colour coding.
  • Adapt the format to the needs of the client e.g. young people like material which is easy to carry, and fits into their wallet or jeans pocket.
  • Carry out user testing.