How to write in plain English

Did you know that …

80% of lawyers think their writing is above average
when in fact …
only 5% of their clients agree!

Yesterday, Sarah Fox, 500 word lawyer, spoke to my Birmingham KN-UK group on writing in plain English. It was a fantastic session. Sarah started with this rather shocking statistic, which shows that there is clearly a problem in the way law firms communicate with their clients. Being generally risk averse, lawyers prefer to avoid change, but writing poorly must cost them money.

How can they/we improve the standard of writing in law firms?


Sarah has already done some comprehensive guest posts for me on writing in plain English, which you can access here including her useful WRITE acronym.

In addition, I think I particularly took the following away from our session yesterday:

  • The importance of considering, not just the audience for your work, but who they may share it with, what emotional state they may be in when they receive your writing, and whether your writing is going to have an emotional impact on them, which could affect communication of salient issues. This may not be a particular problem for my blog posts, but it could be a major issue for those writing complex reports to clients with sensitive problems, such as those involved in clinical negligence claims.
  • Being brief does not mean being short, it means including only what is necessary (I’m terrible for trying to anticipate my reader’s every need and writing waaaay too much) and writing clearly does not mean dumbing down.
  • It is quicker to write all of your piece in one swoop, take a break (preferably overnight if it is an important piece of work) then edit as a separate activity. Try not to edit as you go. It takes longer in the end.
  • Editing should be undertaken in 3 separate stages (in this order): copy, scrutiny, proof. Try not to jump straight into proof-reading, you only waste your time.
  • Structure – think about the different types of structure and choose one which is suitable for your piece of writing in particular. Make maximum use of headings and BLUF (bottom line up front).

If you are interested in learning more about writing in plain English, you could

  • ask Sarah to come to speak to your firm (I heartily recommend her),
  • read a textbook or two (Sarah recommended Brian Garner, Joseph Kimble, Ken Adams),
  • have a look at the Plain English Campaign and Clarity, and some of the software which can score your readability (such as Style Writer), and
  • most importantly, be brave and begin a dialogue with your clients about what they want. You may want to impress them with your stylistic prowess or worry about changing an old formula or precedent, but if this means your clients take their business elsewhere or waste your time with hundreds of non-chargeable follow-up questions, this is costing your business money!

I’m sure we all had slightly different takeaways. If you were there, maybe you could add yours in the comments?

And if you are interested in cost-effective quality lunchtime training such as this, consider joining KN-UK in Bristol, Birmingham or Manchester. Our next training session in Bristol is on understanding clients and our next Birmingham session is on change management.

If you’d like to keep up with what is happening at KN-UK, consider joining our mailing list.


About knowledge4lawyers

I am a lawyer and a Knowledge Management expert. Through The Knowledge Business I help law firms improve their efficiency and profitability through knowledge services - consultancy, training and implementation help.
This entry was posted in Knowledge Network UK, Training and learning, writing and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to How to write in plain English

  1. I have rechecked those figures since the event. Bryan A Garner in his President’s Letter, The Scrivener 1, 3 (Winter 1998) (reporting on the author’s survey of lawyers at his seminars) actually found clients view only 5% of the documents they read as well-drafted, but 95% of lawyers would claim that they draft high-quality documents. It’s even worse than I thought!

  2. Thanks Sarah. The disparity should worry firms. They can’t all be in the 5%!

  3. A bit of serendipity – I received a link to this article on how to write a good executive summary in my inbox today.

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