>> Writing For Less Sophisticated Readers

Writing For Less Sophisticated Readers

By Judge Mark P. Painter

Lawyers often write for other lawyers and judges, who are presumed to be sophisticated readers. That is, they can parse out difficult prose. (But why should they have to?)

But we also frequently write for non-lawyers with varying levels of reading skill – a CEO probably reads better than most criminal clients (unless the criminal client is a CEO, of course.) And increasingly, we might be writing for people whose first language is not English. We must tailor our writing accordingly.

If your client is a college English professor, you can probably assume reading fluency. But most of your clients are not professors, and few are trained in the law. Unfortunately, a significant number of Americans – some studies suggest 20-25 percent – have only rudimentary reading skills.

Here are some suggestions for writing for less skillful readers:

Use common words – earth rather than firmament; fire not conflagration; bird not egret (unless the type of bird is important).

  • Especially for people whose first language isn’t English, avoid idioms or aphorisms. These people may be sophisticated readers in their own language, but they are much less apt to know our figures of speech – pie in the sky, stitch in time, bakers dozen, or blue moon might be confusing – because they may not know the referents.

  • As with all writing, write short sentences. But in this instance, write even shorter, and in basic format – subject-verb-object. Risk being dull rather than misunderstood.

  • Try not to use negative formulations: you must be there, rather than do not fail to appear. (To non-lawyers, the latter is either comical or confusing – the word appear is hardly ever used in this sense.) But you can’t always avoid negatives: do not kill is better than endeavor to keep your enemies alive.
    Make points in bullets or, if sequence matters, in numbers. Bullet points are easier to read and understand.

  • Write big headings that tell what’s coming. Make your organization evident.
    Put specific instructions in bold: Meet me outside Room 306, at the Courthouse, 1000 Main Street, at 8:30 a.m., November 15, or You must return this form by April 1.

  • Always include the street address, even for a well-known destination. Emerging from the subway, or a bus, the address is important for orientation. And there may be two courthouses – a federal and a state. Someone without the street address who asks a passerby for directions may well be sent to the wrong place.

  • Read through what you’ve written and try to see if there is any way it can be misinterpreted. As I’ve learned as an appellate judge – if it can be, it probably will be. If you have a fourth grader handy, have the kid read it and tell you exactly what it says. If a fourth grader can’t read it easily, rewrite.

  • Use the readability statistics of your word-processing program. As I’ve mentioned in previous columns, they are not totally accurate, but they are a good guide. Your document should not score higher than the 6th-grade level.

    Readability Statistics

    Statistics for this column: 14 words per sentence, 10 percent passive voice, grade level 8.5. (Remember the 1818 Rule – no more than an average of 18 words per sentence and 18 percent passive-voice sentences.)

    Questions on usage, style, or grammar are welcome. I don’t claim to be a grammarian, but I have access to many sources. Please send questions, comments, or particularly good or bad examples of legal writing to jugpainter@aol.com.


Mark Painter has served as a judge on the Ohio First District Court of Appeals for 10 years, after 13 years on the Hamilton County Municipal Court. He has served as an Adjunct Professor at the University of Cincinnati College of Law since 1990. Judge Painter is the author of five books, including The Legal Writer: 40 Rules for the Art of Legal Writing. The third edition of that book was published in May. It is available from “http:// books.lawyersweekly.com”>http://books.lawyersweekly.com. Judge Painter has given dozens of seminars on legal writing and will give his six-hour legal writing seminar in Raleigh (Sept. 23), Charlotte (Sept. 26), Nashville (Sept. 30), and Memphis (Oct. 1). For seminar info, go to www.pesi.com. You can contact Judge Painter through his website, www.judgepainter.org.