Garner the Plain English Guru

In Legal Writing in Plain English. A Text with Exercises Garner (2001) draws up a comprehensive list of principles for plain English writing including legal writing, analytical and persuasive writing, legal drafting, document design and continued improvement. The exercises accompanying the book can be accessed on http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/garner/. All these exercises are based on authentic excerpts of legal writing which are used as a basis for paraphrasing, redrafting and editing in plain English.

Most of these principles help develop the transferable abilities typical of writing which might constitute the scaffolding for the future development of the writing skill irrespective of the purpose. Plain English is considered the equivalent of good English writing. Therefore, the guidelines for writing in plain English should be included in each writing course, since they comprise the rules for producing well structured, comprehensible and concise texts.

According to Garner (2001) the skills which law students and graduates need to develop if they wish to draft texts in plain English include:

1. Planning:

  • using a nonlinear, whirlybird (i.e. resembling the mind map) approach is recommended for lawyers;
  • arranging the material in a logical sequence, e.g. using chronology when presenting facts;
  • dividing the documents into sections, and sections into smaller parts;
  • adding headings for the sections and subsections.

2. Paragraphing and organizing writing:

  • beginning each paragraph with a topic sentence;
  • linking paragraphs and signposting within paragraphs;
  • limiting the length of paragraphs to 3-8 sentences/150 words;
  • knowing the reader – an ordinary person and not a sophisticated lawyer;
  • applying correct punctuation.

3. Phrasing and paraphrasing (legalese into plain English):

  • avoiding verbosity; reducing the average length of a sentence to 20 words;
  • relying on S-V-O word order;
  • favouring active over passive voice;
  • creating lists with parallel phrasing for parallel ideas;
  • avoiding multiple negatives;
  • understanding legalese but replacing it with plain English alternatives, e.g. “hereinafter Seller” with “the Seller”, “prior to” with “before”, “in the event that” with “if”;
  • minimizing the use of „to be”, e.g. court is in agreement, fines are dependent, judge is of the opinion…;
  • avoiding nouns created from verbs, e.g. conduct an examination of, make provision for, take into consideration…;
  • shortening wordy phrases, e.g. “a number of” to “many”, “at the time when” to “when”, “subsequent to” to “after”, “the majority of” to “most”.

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