Teaching Plain Language: 5 Challenges

Posted on Dec 17, 2014 in Center News, Plain Language Blog Articles

One of my professional roles is to teach legal writing. And in spite of what you might think, most of us who teach legal writing try to teach law students to use plain language (to some degree or another). But term after term, I’m dismayed at the final assignments’ lack of plain language. So what’s standing in the way? I’ve identified 5 obstacles here, although I’m sure there are others. Whether you’re a plain-language coach, some other kind of teacher, or someone who’s just trying to get people to climb on the plain-language train, maybe some of the suggestions here will help. Although some of them focus on legal writing, I’m sure you can draw analogies to your own field.

1. People write what they read

In law school, students must read. A lot. And then a lot more. Primarily, they read mountains of awful legal writing from decades ago. And because they want to be lawyers, they emulate these judges’ writing. I’m confident it’s the same in other professions. No matter how much we preach plain language in the classroom, students have read thousands of pages of legal writing (or medical writing or accounting writing . . .). So that’s what they emulate—especially when those writers are distinguished judges, and I’m “just” a professor.

I’ve had slight success with a couple of strategies. First, we talk about how a person becomes a judge — there’s not a writing test. So judicial opinions aren’t necessarily the best examples of good legal writing. Second, I try to get them to put themselves into the reader’s shoes. This is relatively easy for them; they readily admit that they hate traditional legal writing. They wish someone would spell it out in plain language! Third, I show them the data. In study after study, lawyers and judges have chosen plain-language documents over those written in legalese.  These strategies won’t bring everyone around, but they help.

2. People hide what they don’ t know

Often—maybe more often than not—the people you’re trying to convert to plain language don’t really know what they want to say. They’re winging it. If they use long sentences, big words, and imprecise language, maybe no one will discover the flaws. I think of this category as “the emperor has no clothes” syndrome. It’s an epidemic. Sometimes, the writer is just lazy. In my experience, though, it’s more likely that the writer ran out of time or got stuck and doesn’t know how to take the next steps.

You can only combat this if your reader is willing to step up and do some more work. Sometimes you can make it less painful by asking ever-so-gentle questions: “I’m not sure what you mean here. Does this mean x or does it mean y?” Or maybe you show some interest: “I never thought about it that way before. Could you tell me more about this point?” In other words, if you’re willing to identify some of the ambiguities and lack of necessary detail, you just might help the writer see what to do next.

3. People are creatures of habit

How many papers did you write in high school and college? How many of those papers came with an instruction like this: “Minimum length is __ pages”? How many of you got very good at stretching a little bit of information into the minimum number of pages? Of course the minimum page limit was designed to require a certain depth of treatment. But that’s not the message most students receive. And sadly, the students who are the best “fillers” tend to get the best grades. (That’s a personal opinion, unsupported by data, by the way. But you know who I’m talking about!)

My students (and yours) have trained themselves for years to write this way: lots of prepositional phrases, passive voice, unnecessary “hedging” clauses (at the beginning, middle, and end of most sentences). Frankly, I do the same thing. I’ve finally given up my goal of writing in plain language. Instead, I’m happy to revise to plain language. This, in fact, is my most effective teaching strategy. Rather than trying to beat bad writing habits out of them, I try to beat multiple (mandatory) revisions into them—a new habit. It’s also important to get them to compare the first draft to the last draft.  Do it enough times, and you have a chance of getting through.

4. Plain writing is hard

I don’t know if this obstacle or obstacle #5 is the hardest to overcome. Maybe it depends on the writer. Regardless, those of us in the plain-language field already know that it’s not easy to write in plain language. Even when we’re committed to writing for the reader, it’s often tough to imagine that reader and how he or she will receive what we’re writing. It’s far easier to simply write what makes sense to us, and then to expect others to get it because we understand what we meant.

One of the challenges here is in the name itself: plain language (or plain writing or any number of other labels). If the language is plain, shouldn’t it be easy to write? Of course, we know better. But it’s tough to convince others that what we do is difficult (especially when some of the other 5 obstacles are at play).

The most effective strategy I’ve found is to simply hunker down with the writer and start doing the work. A person can only appreciate the work that goes into this task by doing the task. Sooner or later, you’ll get the “this is a lot harder than I thought it would be” response.

5. People think they’re good writers

Do you know about the Dunning-Kruger effect? Bryan Garner brought attention to it in the legal world through his ABA Journal blog earlier this year (“Bryan Garner on Words”). The Dunning-Kruger effect is “a cognitive bias in which unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than is accurate. This bias is attributed to a metacognitive inability to recognize their [own] ineptitude.”

Apparently, it’s prevalent in the legal profession: lawyers think they’re great writers. And perhaps the worse they are, the better they believe they are. Crazy, eh? These individuals also fail to recognize others’ superior skills—like their colleagues’ skills . . . or yours. It’s tough to win the plain-language fight in that environment.

Reaching success with these people requires more than teaching them to use plain language: First, you have to get them to see that they’re not the great writers that they believe themselves to be. The best way to accomplish this is to provide a lot of feedback—and not from just you. In a classroom, guided peer review can be an effective tool. In the real world, it can help to get customer or client feedback. Take one of the writer’s “unplain” documents and ask clients to answer some questions about the content.   In other words, do some testing.

These 5 obstacles to teaching others to use plain language can be overcome. But those of us in this field of work know how challenging it can be. If you have strategies that work (or other obstacles), please pass them along, or submit your own blog—we’d love to consider it for a future column!


julieclemtAbout the author: Julie Clement has been a law professor for the past 16 years, teaching legal research, writing, and drafting. She recently left legal education to pursue private consulting. Her firm, J Clement Communications, focuses on legal writing, legal drafting, and plain legal language.