In 2012, with the support of a Legal Services Corporation grant, LawNY (Legal Aid of Western New York) and Transcend (a language services company) offered a 10-week interactive online course, Plain Language Seminar for Lawyers.
Twenty lawyers from court systems and legal aid agencies across the nation signed up to learn more about plain language and to receive individual guidance with their active drafting projects.
Here are some of the questions posed during this class.
I feel constrained by legal language. What do I do about that?
This can be one of the hardest parts of getting started with plain language. Try to think about your audience. Will the reader understand the language? If the answer is no, use language your reader knows. It’s all about your audience!
How can you get people to read the documents you send them?
Making them as plain and as attractive as possible is one of the best things you can do to make people read your documents. Looks count, so use colors and graphics, if you can, to make your documents look inviting.
How can I get more practice and learn more about plain language?
The best way to learn plain language is to do it. Once you learn the basic skills and tips, practice, practice, practice. And ask someone else skilled in plain language to edit your work.
Is it OK to make a plain language version of a direct quote?
Technically, no. But you can leave off the quote marks, or say, Mr. Smith says that…. That way you can make the text plainer, but not use it as a direct quote.
What should you do if you want to make something plain in another language (a translation)?
It is best to make the English plain first and then translate it into other languages. Translations should aim to match the English as closely as possible.
Which can accommodate more text on a page: 1 column or 2?
It depends on how you format, such as gutters, margins, font size, spacing, and white space. In general, you can get slightly less text with 2 columns.
Can you recommend a good source for graphics?
Do a web search for free vector or jpg clipart. For example, if you are looking for an image of a courthouse, search for: “free clip art courthouse”. You can also buy clip art. Even better, have your own graphics designed for you. If you design graphics, then you own them and can use them for your future projects.
Learning from each other
It’s always helpful to hear from the people we teach – it makes us better teachers next time. If you teach plain language, please send us some of your favorite questions from your students. Let’s learn from each other.
About the Author: Maria Mindlin is a linguist, former court interpreter, and founder of Transcend, a language services company in California. She loves teaching plain language and enjoys the challenge of translating inaccessible text into language most people can understand.