sandy henderson – central london copywriter

plain words for lawyers

Guidance for writing about the law may have changed a little over time, but not much. In The Complete Plain Words by Sir Ernest Gowers (Penguin), first published in 1954, they are explained as well as they might be in any book written today:

  1. Be sure that you know what your correspondent is asking before you begin to answer him.
  2. Begin by answering his question.
  3. So far as possible, confine yourself to the facts of the case you are writing about and avoid any general statement about the law.
  4. Avoid a formal framework if you can.
  5. Be careful to say nothing that might give your correspondents the impression, however mistakenly, that you think it right that they should be put to trouble in order to save you from it.
  6. Use no more words than are necessary to do the job.
  7. Keep your sentences short.
  8. Be compact; do not put a strain on your reader’s memory by widely separating parts of a sentence that are closely related to one another.
  9. Do not say more than is necessary.
  10. Explain technical terms in simple words.
  11. Do not use what have been called the ‘dry meaningless formulae’ of commercialese.
  12. Use words with precise meanings rather than vague ones.
  13. If two words convey your meaning equally well, choose the common one rather than the less common.

The same book also recites rules for official writing given to staff within a government ministry:

You must know:

  • your subject
  • your reason for writing
  • your reader

You must be:

  • clear
  • simple and brief
  • accurate and complete
  • polite and human
  • prompt

Check your writing is:

  • clear
  • simple and brief
  • accurate
  • complete
  • human

In a similar vein, Fowler’s The King’s English (1906) says:

“Anyone who wishes to become a good writer should endeavour, before he allows himself to be tempted by more showy qualities, to be direct, simple, brief, vigorous and lucid.

This general principle may be translated into general rules in the domain of vocabulary as follows:

  • Prefer the familiar word to the far-fetched
  • Prefer the concrete word to the abstract
  • Prefer the single word to the circumlocution
  • Prefer the short word to the long
  • Prefer the Saxon word to the Romance

These rules are given in order of merit; the last is also the least.”