Aug 24

Writing requests clearly AND politely

Is it possible to write politely and clearly at the same time?  Can you write a polite letter that is nevertheless direct and to-the-point?

When writing letters asking for a particular action to be taken, people commonly write somewhat obscurely – using extra words and phrases so as not to appear demanding; giving lengthy explanations of the situation in the hope that action might be prompted; avoiding bluntness at all costs.  In the process, the desired action doesn’t get mentioned at all.

For example, this letter doesn’t actually ask for a mistaken charge to be refunded:

We noticed that our credit card had been charged for the amount of $XXX on [date], and then charged with the same amount on the following day.  However, we had only stayed in your hotel on the one occasion, for which we were invoiced a single amount of $XXX.

To date we have been delighted with your hotel, where we often stay while visiting relatives.

I rang customer service three days ago and spoke to “Veronica” who promised to call me back but I have not heard anything further.

Trusting we can sort this out quickly,


Right at the other extreme, people sometimes write a very aggressive demand in the hope of a quick response.  UK residents look forward to their annual TV licence demand, which is not known for its soft-spokenness.  A fairly typical example begins with the subject header:


This approach is clear (if the aggressive tone doesn’t stop the reader actually reading it), but certainly not polite.

How do you go about creating a polite tone without losing clarity?

  1. First of all, be clear about what you want your reader to do.  Do you want them to respond to you, and if so how?  If you don’t make that clear in your letter the first time, you’ll only end up writing again – and probably much less politely.
  2. Secondly, make your request as clear as possible.  If you want a reply, then say so.  If you want an action taken, describe it clearly.  As far as possible, give a time frame.
  3. Create politeness by your choice of words, not be being indirect.  It is quite acceptable to simply say “please”.
  4. The longer your letter, the harder it is to control the tone.  Several pages of explanation can easily start to sound rather whiny, which is not the polite tone you’re aiming for.  Be concise.

By way of example, try these:

  • “I look forward to the money being refunded by Friday of next week.”
  • “Please send me your reply as soon as possible.  I can give you more information if you have any questions.”
  • “We have already signed the enclosed form.  Please sign it yourself as well (we have marked where to do this) and send it on to the registry in the envelope we provided.  It needs to arrive by the end of this month.”

And finally, a really classy example of politeness and clarity put together – a letter from lawyers for Jack Daniel’s to the author of a book whose cover was very similar to the Jack Daniel’s trademarks.  The whole letter is impressive, but as a sample:

“In order to resolve this matter, because you are a Louisville “neighbor” and a fan of the brand, we simply request that you change the cover design when the book is re-printed.  If you would be willing to change the design sooner than that (including on the digital version), we would be willing to contribute a reasonable amount towards the costs of doing so. …

We wish you continued success with your writing and we look forward to hearing from you at your earliest convenience.  A response by [date] would be appreciated, if possible.”

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May 09

You’re never above being proofread

It’s very tempting to think that you’ve been doing your job for a very long time and that you’ve earned enough seniority not to have anyone else look at your work.

It’s also tempting to think that short emails and one-page letters don’t matter that much, and that you can send them out without much checking.

Resist that temptation!  You’re never too old or too important to be proofread.

Really good proofreading is a rare skill (if you know someone who does it well, treasure them!).  If possible, get yourself a couple of proofreading buddies at work and get used to checking each other’s work.  The more familiar you are with each other’s writing style, the more useful comments you can make.

There are two parts to the task: proofreading for accuracy, and proofreading for sense.

Proofreading for accuracy

This includes checking for typos of course, but also things such as:

  • correct punctuation;
  • consistent capitalisation;
  • headings divorced from their text;
  • accurate quotations and references (if there are any).

Proofreading for sense

This is essentially checking that you’ve got your point across.  Does the document read well?  Does it make sense on the first reading?  There are various ways to do this sort of proofreading, such as:

  • Read it out loud.  Does it sound reasonable to your ears?  Is there a distracting rhythm as you read it?  Are there words which you would never use when speaking (eg. hereafter, theretofore, such [as a noun], etc)?
  • Find someone with a similar education level to the intended reader and have them proofread it.  Do they find it reasonably natural to read?  Is it too complex – or conversely, is it condescending?
  • Check the visuals.  Does the layout make sense?  Is the most important information easy to find?


Finally, don’t be offended by corrections.  Everybody makes errors or slips, and it doesn’t mean you’re less intelligent or senior.  And making the change will make you look better.


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Mar 03

Consumer contracts – plain English please!

Why should consumer contracts be written in plain English?  Because most people have to deal with them on their own, without the luxury of a lawyer being able to advise them on what it means.  Think about how many contracts you’re bound by right now.  Here’s just some of the normal everyday contracts people are signed up to:

  • a home loan (if you own your house)
  • a lease (if you’re renting)
  • an employment contract
  • a mobile phone contract
  • life insurance
  • car insurance
  • home/contents insurance
  • credit card agreements

When you need to know what to do under one of those contracts, you need to be able to work out the answer yourself.  Very few of us have the money or the inclination to run off to a solicitor to work it out for us.

In a consumer contract, the consumer – that’s you – often has a very weak bargaining position.  In all the examples above, the other party is so much stronger that you probably can’t influence the terms of the contract.  You have to take what your bank offers you, for instance, or else you have to look elsewhere for your home loan.  If the terms they offer are so opaque that you can’t easily navigate your way through them, there’s not a lot you can do.

But here’s the thing – isn’t it in their interest for you to understand your own home loan?  Isn’t it in the telco’s interest for you to understand your mobile phone contract?  Wouldn’t you think your landlord wants you to know your obligations under your lease?  How are you supposed to comply with your contracts if you can’t make sense of the terms – or if the language simply puts you off reading it?

Fair Trading legislation in many countries helps to some extent, but the real problem is the mindset that legal jargon can’t be rewritten in plain English without sacrificing meaning.  This myth is wrong on two counts:

  1. If the document is difficult to read and understand, then meaning has been sacrificed already.
  2. There’s plenty of evidence that contracts can be written just as clearly in plain English.  Even judges agree, and they’re the ones who REALLY know (for just one example, look at paragraph 18 of this judgment from the Federal Court of Australia).

There’s a world out there where normal people can deal with normal contracts because they’re written in normal language.  Sadly, that’s not normal yet.



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Feb 29

If your client doesn’t understand your advice, can you say you’ve given it to them?

The classic advice-giving conundrum: you’re giving advice to a client/patient/customer who just wants the headlines and isn’t interested in the detail.  But you have an obligation to give them full advice – perhaps a legal requirement or a professional obligation means that you have to be able to prove that you gave full advice.

This scenario comes up in a lot of professions.  Some examples:

  • a doctor needing to inform a patient about the risks of a particular procedure, so that the patient can give informed consent;
  • a lawyer advising a client about their prospects of success before a trial;
  • an accountant recommending a particular tax strategy to a client.

What so often happens is that your advice becomes a “covering your back” advice – a long and convoluted written statement of all the possible risks and permutations, designed to be evidence that you gave absolutely complete advice.  The problem with this is that the focus is on you, the writer, trying to cover your back – there’s almost no focus on your reader (that is, your client/patient) at all.  The result is that often the reader has no hope of understanding what you’ve written.

If your “covering your back” advice is so complicated that your client can’t understand it, have you actually covered your back at all?  Can you say that you really did give the full advice you needed to?

Not long ago, I saw a letter advising a client about whether to settle a family dispute.  The client was just an ordinary person with an ordinary job and an ordinary education.  The letter was fifteen pages long.  It had an excerpt from an actuarial table in it.  It jumped from the past to the future and back again.  I had trouble understanding it, and it’s my job to understand that sort of thing.

The point of that letter was so that the lawyer could show that they’d given full information to the client to help him decide whether or not to settle the case.  The lawyer hadn’t really thought about how to write it so that the client could understand it.  I’d argue that that letter of advice didn’t actually give any useful advice at all.

It’s so important to write with your reader in mind.  Writing advice for your own purpose (to prove you’ve met your professional obligation) probably means that your reader won’t actually receive much of the advice you’re trying to give.

So how do you write an advice with your reader in mind?

  • Know your reader.  In the medical procedure example above, how comfortable is your patient with hospitals?  Do they know how to evaluate medical risk dispassionately, or will they be looking through very emotional lenses?  Have they had anything similar done before?  What’s their general understanding of their own condition?  In a legal situation, how long has your client been involved in the dispute?  Can they take a commercial view, or is that not possible?  Are they threatened by the legal process, or can they be objective about it?  Use all this information to help you get the tone right.
  • Anticipate your reader’s questions.  What are the things your client/patient is likely to want to know?  Make sure this information is presented clearly and is easy to find.
  • Remember that people are usually looking for an excuse to stop reading.  Anything your reader isn’t interested in will give them an excuse to stop reading.  You need to spend extra time on information your reader probably doesn’t care about, to make sure you’re communicating it in a way that’s attractive and clear.  Aim to make it clear enough to be understood on the first reading – assume that you won’t get a second reading.
  • Explain jargon and technical terms.  Even if your client or patient knows a lot about the situation already, they’re not an expert like you are.  Don’t assume they remember what everything means.
  • Write in plain English with a clear visual layout.
  • Get a colleague to read your draft.  I can’t overstate how important it is to have someone else read your writing.  It’s not a sign of weakness to ask someone to review it.  Get the person on the next desk to read what you’ve written and tell you what they think you’re driving at.  If you’ve got someone at work with a similar level of education to your client/patient, get them to read it.

Remember, if your advice can’t be understood, then you probably haven’t actually given the advice in the first place.

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Feb 15

Active voice vs passive voice

I recently had someone ask me slightly sheepishly what the term “active voice” means.

It’s not a silly question – depending on when you were at high school, you might never have learned grammar like that. So here’s a potted guide in plain English (EVERYTHING can be written in plain English, even grammar!).

“Active voice” and “passive voice” refer to the way a verb is used in a sentence.  In the active voice, someone does something.  In the passive voice, someone has something done to them.  For instance:

  • Gillian eats the sandwiches.   [active]
  • Gillian is given a surprise.   [passive]

In the active sentence, we know who the “actor” is – it’s Gillian who is doing the eating.  In the passive sentence, that information can be hidden – we know that Gillian got a surprise, but we don’t know who gave her that surprise.

The passive voice is useful when you don’t know who’s doing something, or when you want to emphasise the person (or thing) that has it done to them.  But it is often less clear than the active voice because information tends to remain obscure.  Think about these two sentences, which both describe the same situation – the active sentence contains information which is missing from the passive one:

  • Mark used up the sticky tape yesterday.   [active]
  • The sticky tape was all used up yesterday.   [passive]

To clarify who used up the sticky tape, you need to add in extra words: “The sticky tape was all used up yesterday by Mark” now conveys the same information as the active voice version, but uses nearly 50% more words.

As a broad generalisation, writing in the passive voice tends to be more wordy and less direct.  In many cases, wordy sentences in the passive voice can be vastly improved by re-writing in the active.  Here are some examples:

  • It is requested that women’s arms be covered.  [TWO passive verbs – “it is requested” and “be covered”]
    We ask women to cover their arms.  [active voice]
    Women must cover their arms.   [a significant re-wording; very different from the passive version]
  • Applications are required to be delivered to the Promotions Officer.   [again, two passive verbs]
    Please deliver your application to the Promotions Officer.   [active]
  • It is suggested that three conclusions can be drawn from the data.   [again, two passive verbs]
    We draw three conclusions from the data.   [active]

The passive voice is not necessarily bad.  Sometimes it’s necessary if you don’t know (or don’t want to emphasise) who’s doing the verb.  Sometimes it feels more natural than the active voice.  The last example is a good one – the main problem is the wordiness rather than the passive voice.  “Three conclusions can be drawn from the data” would be a perfectly acceptable re-write, even though it’s still in the passive.

Some people won’t agree with that view and would avoid the passive at all costs.  Go on, enter the fray – what’s your view?

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Feb 15

Turning science into plain language

Last week I worked with three scientists preparing a grant application.  Essentially, an organisation is making money available for research, and the scientists need to convince the funders that their project is worth a share of the pot.

The challenge is that there are complicated concepts to convey, and the readers (the people reviewing the grant application) are not necessarily familiar with those concepts and the technical language used. If they don’t understand the application, though, they obviously aren’t going to give the scientists a share of the research money. They need to be informed about the research project and also persuaded that it is important enough to give funding to.  The grant application needs to be clear and convincing without “dumbing down” or being vague about the detail of the proposal. This is where a plain language consultant can help.

One of the researchers is someone I’ve worked with many times over the last decade, and we thought it might be interesting to describe how we go about it.

My client brings me in when he needs to increase the range of readers who will be able to understand his paper or proposal without diluting the academic content.  It’s important to know who those readers will be – this time, we know that they will be experienced grant application reviewers, will be highly educated (possibly even specialists) in their own field, but not necessarily in the same field as my client.  He always gives me a complete draft of the document to begin with; he doesn’t get me to write from scratch.  What he wants me to do is to take his technical writing and make it understandable to an educated but non-specialist reader.

Some of the edits are standard to any plain English review.  I work on wordiness, passive voice, convoluted sentence structure, and so on.  Scientists are often taught to write in the third person and in the passive voice, and this can breed tortuous strings of phrases designed to avoid using the words “I” or “we”. Disentangling these and breaking sentences into smaller chunks can have a dramatic effect on readability.

The more interesting part, though, is what to do with the specialist terms – of which there are often many.  Technical words with a single meaning are reasonably straightforward; they can be defined or described as part of the text.  More complicated are “terms of art” – words which have an ordinary meaning but which are used in a specialised sense.   The danger is that the reader won’t recognise the specialist meaning, or will realise that there is a specialised meaning but won’t know what it is.

We have an iterative process for dealing with these. The first step is to recognise what are terms of art as opposed to mere ambiguity. I ask a lot of questions, such as

  • Is this a specialised term?
  • If it’s not, then did you mean [option A] or [option B]?
  • Have I understood this sentence correctly?
  • Is this [paraphrase my interpretation of what is written] a fair summary of what you meant?

Based on the answers, I can clear up ambiguities in the expression.  This leaves us with words that are signposts to particular technical concepts.  Another set of questions is needed:

  • What does this word mean in this context?
  • Is there an everyday word which would make a reasonable substitution?
  • Is this word shorthand for a much larger concept?  If so, what is the concept? [Note – this can be a long discussion, but a necessary one]
  • Can the sentence be reworded to introduce the background concepts?
  • Do we actually need to introduce the concept earlier in the document to prepare the reader?

I might suggest a number of ways to rework the sentence, but my client really has to make the final decision here.  Sometimes technical terms can be removed, but sometimes they can’t be avoided – it’s my client who needs to decide whether the reworked sentences are accurate or not.

An example from last week was the word “risk”.  In general use, a risk is a danger or liability.  However, “risk” is a technical concept in my client’s field of research – it means not the danger itself, but the combination of how likely it is to occur and how disastrous it would be.  This specific meaning can be confusing to a non-specialist reader, but it is a term of art in my client’s field.  Using a different word would make it seem that he did not understand the language of his own field.  We resolved the problem this time with an early paragraph introducing the idea with some examples.

Scientific papers and grant applications often have very specific requirements for word count, page count and style.  This doesn’t leave much room to work on visual readability through layout and formatting.  Clarity has to come from the words themselves.  To do this, I need to understand the text thoroughly myself, which is an aspect of the job I really enjoy.

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Jan 13

Structuring a contract

I’ve been a lawyer for more than ten years, and contracts have been the bread and butter of much of my working life.  I’ve written many, but as a specialist litigator I’ve argued and fought over even more.  Seeing contracts fall apart because the parties can’t understand them or use them effectively is one of the things that made me passionate about writing in plain English.

Contracts are often complicated.  Even when they’re short, they contain specific obligations for each party which need to be communicated clearly to be effective.  When you scale that up to a really large contract – say a business sale agreement which includes premises, staff, goodwill and intellectual property, all wrapped up in a complicated financing structure – then communicating each party’s rights and obligations clearly becomes even more vital.

The contract is like a road map for the parties’ relationship, and there is too much at stake if they can’t make sense of it themselves. Obviously there are lots of complicated concepts to express, and the challenge is to express them clearly.  You want the parties to be able to understand the contract themselves (that is, without needing to call their lawyer). The point isn’t to “dumb it down”, but to make it clear for the reader.  Clarity is not the same thing as over-simplicity.  Getting the right mix of specificity and clarity is a real art.

Part of the toolbox in making an agreement clear is using a plain English style.  Equally important is the visual appearance – page design and layout, font, spacing, numbering and bullet styles, size, and so on.

Then there is the structure of the contract itself, including the “signposting” to show the reader where to find the right information.  This includes a table of contents, a definitions section, schedules and annexures, and the way defined terms are identified.

There is plenty of debate about how these structural elements should be used, but ultimately people tend to have their own preferences.  Here are mine, but I’d be fascinated to hear about yours:

  • Table of contents – These tend to occur at the beginning of a contract, but they do come at the end in some firms’ precedent style.  I like them at the beginning.  If you’ve got a long contract, you’ll be needing the table of contents to find your way around, and the beginning is where you’d go to look for it.  It also helps you get an overview of what’s covered by the contract from the moment you pick the document up.
  • Definitions – People have very definite views on whether your definitions section (or “dictionary”) should be the first clause, the last clause, or a separate schedule.  The argument in favour of the first clause is that it’s easy to find and (in theory at least) you can read it first and know what all the defined terms are throughout the contract.  However, if you feel that a long list of definitions makes a contract look intimidating, you might argue in favour of removing them to a separate schedule.  My own strong preference, though, is for the definitions to be the last clause of the contract.  I think this makes the contract more accessible than having a big list of defined terms as the first thing the reader comes across, while also keeping the definitions clearly as part of the body of the contract.
  • Defined terms – How do you indicate that a particular word in a clause is a defined term?  If it’s not clear that it has a specific meaning in this particular contract, then you risk ambiguity and confusion.  The main options are capitalising all defined terms, using bold or underline, and hyperlinking in the case of electronic documents.  I like hyperlinking best – it’s clear visually, and has the bonus of making it easy to bring up the definition straight away.  For hard-copy documents, however, my preference is for bolding.  Most lawyers would expect that a capitalised word indicates that there is a special definition for it – but non-lawyers don’t follow this convention as rigidly as lawyers think they do.  Bolding gives a strong visual indication, and I think is more in keeping with the way people write in the “real” world.

There are other things to consider as well, such as where to place schedules and annexures, whether to pull out a list of principal terms, and so on.  I’ll discuss these in future posts.

On what I’ve talked about here, though – defined terms, definitions sections and tables of contents – what do you like?  I’m interested in views from non-lawyers as well as lawyers on this; they may not be the same…

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Jan 05

Making a plain language version of an existing document

Faced with a long and convoluted document which needs improvement (for example, a financial agreement, a letter of advice, or a set of instructions), how do you go about creating a plain English version?

One option is to re-write it from scratch – this is worthwhile when the whole structure needs changing, as it sometimes does. For instance, a detailed set of instructions might turn out to make more sense as a short list of principles, perhaps with a few examples for guidance.

Another option is simply cutting out words with a liberal use of red pen.  This is easy to do, but hard to achieve a good result with.  Unless you read the final product carefully, you can easily end up with a stilted feel to the writing – short sentences full of complicated words aren’t necessarily any better than long sentences full of complicated words. By all means do this though if you’ve got time to be really careful.

In between these two extremes is where most of the work happens.  Leaving the structure largely in place, each clause or paragraph is inspected for what it is really trying to say.  Then that message is reconstructed in plainer language.

However you do it, you need to look at the “before” and “after” versions to make sure you’ve got it just right.  Ideally, get someone else to look at it as well for a second and more impartial opinion. Here are some useful questions to ask yourself when reviewing:

  1. Does the new wording convey the point made in the original version?  Would it make sense to a lay person?
  2. Does the new version make sense in just one reading?
  3. Does any of the new wording strike you as inaccurate, ambiguous, or incomplete?
  4. Is the new version actually an improvement over the original, or does it need more work?

Do you have any other questions or guidelines you use when reviewing a new version?

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Dec 19

A plain English credit card agreement

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (a body which deals with consumer financial markets in the United States) has published a draft plain English credit card agreement.  It is designed to fit comfortably on two pages: one page of terms, and one page of definitions.  The layout is very easy on the eye, and it certainly doesn’t read like many credit card agreements you might see elsewhere (see here for examples of real-life agreements in current use).

It’s a great demonstration of how plain language makes complex ideas much clearer.  The point isn’t to make the ideas simple – just to make them clear to the reader.  This draft agreement is much easier for both the customer AND the bank to understand.

I do have a reservation though.  Section 3 sets out “some of our rights” and “some of your rights”.  If that only sets out some of the bank’s rights and some of the customer’s rights, then where are the rest of their rights set out?  If a dispute arose, could the bank allege that it had some extra rights that weren’t so obviously set out?  This is the sort of ambiguity which makes bank customers nervous.  It’s the opposite of plain English, in fact – it gives words for the bank to hide behind, rather than being absolutely clear.

That said, getting a credit card agreement onto two pages of reasonably-sized type is a terrific goal.  I’m sure it’s possible, and the design and layout of this attempt is excellent.  The plain English itself probably needs a bit more work, though.

What do you think?

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Dec 01

Designing forms – whetting your appetite

Forms, questionnaires, surveys – almost every organisation produces these at one time or another, from the tax office to the PTA at your local school.  Most of us groan at the thought of filling them out, so how do you design a form that:

  • is easy for the user to fill out; and
  • gets you the information you want?

Like most pieces of writing, you need to plan before you begin.  Start by thinking about some of these questions:

  1. What is the most important information you need to get from the person filling in the form?  Are you asking clearly for this information, or is the question or prompt ambiguous?
  2. What information do you really need, and what can you do without?  For instance, do you really need a date of birth or is that a bit irrelevant?  Do you really need multiple contact details or is one enough?
  3. Who is likely to be filling out your form, and will they understand any specialised terms you use?
  4. How long is each answer likely to be, and have you left enough room for it?

I recently had to fill out a form which had a question at the bottom of one page, and the answer space at the top of the following page.  Needless to say, neither I nor the people around me remembered to answer that question.  A simple matter of formatting meant that no information was gathered for that question!

We’ll have some follow-ups on this topic over the coming months, but in the meantime have you ever come across a form that was particularly easy to fill out?  What made it work so well?

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