Write to be understood

You may get a lightbulb moment without legal jargon confusing things.

The plaintive opening drew me in immediately:

“Why are many financial news releases and publicly filed documents written so poorly?”

In A Plea for Plain English in Financial Documents, Steve Lipin and Adam Rosman make the case for good writing in financial news releases, initial public offerings and other publicly filed documents. Instead of writing for lawyers, they recommend writing to be understood:

  1. Ditch those terms lawyers love (herein, hereto, hereunder, hereinafter, hereby, notwithstanding, whatsoever)
  2. Minimize abbreviations and acronyms
  3. Avoid long parenthetical phrases
  4. Avoid all caps
  5. Emulate Warren Buffett, who says he writes his refreshingly straightforward shareholder letters as if he’s talking to his sisters.

The need for writing to be understood also has a place in contracts, wills and other lawyerly creations.

I had my will updated earlier this year, and specifically asked if it could be short and written in plain language. My lawyer said she would do her best, but there are certain phrases they pretty much have to include — because they are writing for other lawyers. It’s a CYA (cover your a – -) kind of thing, I guess.

Looking at the result, and at a draft contract I just reviewed, I suggest these additional tips for financial and legal writing to be understood:

  1. Shorten the sentences. One paragraph in my will ran 24 lines with just eight sentences, because some were 73 words long. Reader understanding drops to less than 10 per cent after 42 words, according to a survey done by the American Press Institute.
  2. Choose one word. Do Trustees really have to be “liable, answerable, or accountable” and not just “liable”? Does “the whole of my property” really need to be spelled out as “of whatsoever nature and kind and wheresoever situate”?
  3. Use bullets to break up lengthy sections and gather related thoughts.
  4. Use simple words. Why not “hire and pay” rather than “employ and remunerate”? “If” rather than “In the event of”? “Agree” rather than “covenant and agree”?

Who’s with me on fighting for understanding?

Related reading:
Forgive me for suspecting that lawyers are paid by the word (with a 192-word sentence)
Five easy fixes to make your writing more readable and understandable

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