When writing a legal document, you must ensure the writing is clear, concise and accurate. There are a few tips and guidelines that can help you achieve this.
1 – Organise your thoughts
It is always advisable to write a rough draft or to sketch out the structure of the document before you begin writing. You should introduce your ideas in the opening paragraph before expanding on them in the paragraphs below and concluding at the end.
Words such as ‘however’, ‘furthermore’, ‘alternatively’ or ‘nonetheless’ can help your readers link paragraphs together and understand how different topics relate to each other.
When your text is properly laid-out and organised appropriately, your readers will be able to understand it easily and find the information they wish to find without any problems.
Clear sub-headings, bolded text, bulleted list and other stylistic features can help you achieve this.
2 – Use standard English
You must have a good grasp of written English before you begin writing legal documentations. A misplaced comma, a spelling mistake or a poor word choice could result in someone completely misunderstanding the document and could even lead to a professional negligence compensation claim.
3 – Use the Active Voice rather than the Passive Voice.
The active voice is straight and to-the-point, whereas the passive voice gets the subject out in a more roundabout way. You should put the actor (subject) before the verb to make it clear who is responsible for the action.
For instance, it is preferable to say, “The personal injury solicitor will file the compensation claim,” rather than something like, “The compensation claim was filed by the personal injury solicitor.”
The active voice also allows you to be direct with your readers.
4 – Use imperatives and Declaratives
Imperatives are ‘commands’, such as ‘sign both sides before returning’, whereas declaratives are statements, such as ‘both sides must be signed before this document is returned’. These sentence choices are crisp and concise and enable you to directly address the readers and inform them what to do. Other sentence choices, such as interrogatives (questions) and exclamatives (statements of surprise) can be effective in more informal settings but are usually inappropriate in legal documents.
5 – Use short Sentences
A key part of being concise is using short sentences. Instead of writing, “Solicitors cannot deal with cases other than those relating to their specialities,” it is better to say, “Solicitors must only deal with those cases that relate to their specialities.” You can avoid short sentences by avoiding negative phrases when positive phrases can still accurately express the same idea. Negative statements can still be used if they express a concept clearly and concisely, such as “don’t smoke”.
Another way to write short, accurate sentences is to minimise the use of exceptions. Instead of saying, “Everyone – except for those under the age of 18 – should…” you ought to say, “Everyone over the age of 18 should…”
Phrases such as ‘due to the fact that’, ‘with all things considered’ or ‘in the amount of’ are almost always superfluous and should be removed, as they confuse the meaning of sentences and reduce the impact of writing.
6 – Use simple Language and avoid Legalese
Although you may be tempted to fill a legal document with legalese, it is best to use standard, simple language that the general public will be able to understand. This makes your language direct and avoids any miscommunication or misunderstandings. While your writing should be dignified and authoritative, it should not be pompous.
If you feel like you cannot reduce your use of jargon, show your document to a colleague and ask them to give you feedback. If the document is not confidential you could read it to a layman friend and ask them whether or not they understand it.
7 – Use inclusive terms
Many English words are gender-specific, but recent moves towards political correctness have seen new coinages that are more gender-neutral. You should use ‘fire-fighter’ instead of ‘fireman’ and should use ‘they’ rather than ‘he’ when the party could be male or female.
8 – When you’ve finished writing Legal Documents, edit!
When you have finished writing your legal document, you should edit it ruthlessly. This will involve deleting any unnecessary words, adding punctuation or amending spelling and grammatical mistakes. Rewrite any confusing sentences or paragraphs so they are completely clear.
When editing, you should also consider consistency. For example, if you use a colon before a list in one instance, you must not use a dash before a list in a later instance.
If you are unsure about your abilities, then pass your work to another legal document writer or to a professional solicitor so they can look through it and sub-edit it effectively. Errors or confusing word choices in a legal document could undermine your credibility and could even lead to legal negligence claims.