The “Plain English” Way to Inform, Advise, and Persuade

Guess what? Writing in “Plain English” is really a thing. It promotes clarity through strategic word choice, sentence structure, grammar, and usage. Reach the busy, easily distracted reader by offering a simple, clear, concise message. It’s a highly effective alternative to the stuffy, verbose, and confusing writing embraced by most professional writers.

But old habits are hard to break. In particular, overly complex, arcane, ambiguous, wordy writing infects the work product of too many attorneys, as it has since the days of Merry Old England. Back then, broad, long-winded writing was useful when targeting audiences with differing dialects. Paying attorneys by the word or page didn’t help matters. And, of course, complex language served as a nice entry barrier to the profession.

Consider the two contract provisions below. You decide which version most readers would prefer:

1.  Title to the Widget shall remain vested in the Company (notwithstanding delivery to the Customer) until the cost of item as agreed upon in the Contract and all other compensation due thereunder from the Customer on this account has been paid in full.

2.  The Company owns the Widget until the Customer pays for it.

The “Plain English” Doctrine gained traction during the Nixon Administration with the recognition that simplifying communications, including regulations, would increase productivity, compliance, and cost savings. More recently, President Obama signed the Plain Writing Act of 2010 requiring agencies to communicate in a way that the public can easily understand.

Despite its value, “Plain English” remains the exception rather than the norm. Many attorneys don’t realize their writing lacks effectiveness. Convincing them otherwise is no small hurdle. Even worse, they likely lack the guidance needed to produce simple, unambiguous, precise, and concise work product.

“Think like a wise man but communicate in the language of the people.” William Butler Yeats. 

Lawyering success almost entirely depends on strong writing skills. Take a hard look at your writing and decide whether it satisfies the needs of your busy, easily distracted audience. If not, take the initiative to learn more about the “Plain English” approach.