Write With Clarity: A New-School App, An Old-School Guide

There’s often a disconnect in legal writing. More than 70 percent of legal clients say it’s a struggle to understand their lawyers’ documents, according our friends at the New Zealand Law Society. Closer to home, in the Mississippi Law Journal, Jonathan Michael Barnes writes that most Americans have an eighth-grade level of reading comprehension, but jury instructions are written for twelfth grade or higher.

“When juries miscomprehend the law they disingenuously apply it to their determinations of fact, either by unknowingly misapplying it, or by relying on sociological and behavioral mechanisms to make up for their lack of comprehension,” he states.

In other words, they mess up.

From court documents to client proposals, clarity is paramount. Here are two tools – one new-school, one old-school – to help you achieve it.

Readable.io is a dynamite online resource that analyzes copy – pasted text, uploaded documents or URLs. Within seconds, it delivers robust analysis, including:

  • Readability scores
  • Keyword densities (important for website writing)
  • Reading and speaking time (speaking of juries)
  • Passive voice vs. active voice
  • Sentiment analysis – positive, negative or neutral
  • Gender voice – male or female
  • Sentence length
  • Use of clichés

It’s a very helpful app for making complex ideas simple – and if you’re Type A at all, there’s a joy in watching your scores improve as you make edits in real time.

Going back about 100 years, The Kansas City Star style guide is a no-muss, no-fuss set of rules for concise language. Ernest Hemingway, who went on from the Star to win a Nobel Prize in literature, described the newspaper’s instructions as “the best rules I ever learned for the business of writing.”

The opening salvo is worth committing to memory:

  • Use short sentences;
  • Use short first paragraphs;
  • Use vigorous English;
  • Be positive, not negative.

There are many other gems, among them:

  • Eliminate every superfluous word.
  • Don’t say “He had his leg cut off in an accident.” He wouldn’t have had it one for anything.
  • “He suffered a broken leg in a fall,” not “he broke his leg in a fall.” He didn’t break the leg, the fall did.
  • Both simplicity and good taste suggest house rather than residence, and lives rather than resides.
  • Such words as “tots,” “urchins,” “mites of humanity” are not to be used in writing of children. In such cases, where “kid” conveys the proper shading and fits the story, it is permissible.

A reproduction of the rules (including some 1915 insensitivities) is available here.