Drafting documents, especially legal documents, is an everyday activity for many businesses that operate across borders. Even though the documents are prepared in English, they are later translated into another language. If the original document uses overly complex structures, or the language is inconsistent, it may lead to mistranslation. In turn, this may result in business problems or even legal debates.
Below you will find my three top tips on how to promote clarity in your English documents.
1. Write in the active voice
Many formal documents use passive voice to convey authority and highlight the object of an action. However, it often leads to confusion. When used in formal documents, passive voice forces vagueness about the doer’s responsibility. This may not be the best solution in certain documents. For example, in the case of contracts, the parties must be absolutely clear about who is responsible for what. According to Mary Dash, pass voice delivers insufficient information to explain a problem and solve it. Active voice makes documents stronger by showing responsibility or giving credit for an action.
Converting sentences to active voice
Here are some tips for converting sentences from the passive to the active voice.
Identify the subject of the sentence by looking for a “by” phrase. Try to remove it and rewrite the sentence. Move the subject in the “by” phrase closer to the beginning of the sentence. This will give the sentence the active voice.
“The rent is to be paid by the Tenant” (passive voice).
“The Tenant shall pay the rent” (active voice)
If the subject of the sentence is somewhat vague, see if you can use a general term. For example, use phrases such as “scientists,” or “the study,” or “experts in this field.”
2. Use plain language
Writing clear, precise texts that improve the effectiveness of communication has become imperative across many nations. In fact, it became a law in the United States in 2010. Also other countries developed campaigns, policies and guidelines. It became more and more essential to ensure that the reader understands the message.
Elements of plain language
Use a relaxed and natural tone – as if you were talking to the reader in person
Omit unnecessary detail, long sentences, eliminate wordy phrases
Use examples as needed to help explain the text
Use informative headings to help the reader navigate through the text
Order the parts in a logical sequence
Be direct: use short, active verbs and present tense, so that the text is easier to understand
3. Be consistent
As mentioned by Natasha Costello, using different expressions for the same thing may lead to confusion. This may be the case for such words as an obligation, commitment, and requirement. Using synonyms may seem like a good solution but in case of drafting documents, it just confuses the reader.
Improve the readability of your documents
When drafting documents, check for the following item:
Definitions. Include a clause with defined terms to ensure that the relevant expression is interpreted in the same manner throughout the document.
Capitalization. If you capitalize a term (e.g. Contract, Complaint) do so throughout the entire document.
Tenses. Pick a tense and stick with it.
Numbers. Double-check your numbering: it’s easy to accidentally skip a number, especially following negotiations or editing.
Font and Format. Use a consistent font style for case names throughout your document.
Editing. Allow your document to be proofread, edited and rewritten for clarity.
In many cases, the translator is your first reader. Make sure he/she understands the text so that his job results in efficient and clear translation. If the translator has a problem identifying the meaning behind the wording, chances are the intended reader will also have the same problem. Drafting documents is as important as negotiating and signing a document. If you want to spare yourself future trouble, remember about clarity and meaning when preparing a legal document.
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