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. This in turn, could result in business problems or even legal debates.
Below you will find my three top tips for promoting clarity in your English documents.
1. Write in the active voice
Many formal documents use the passive voice to convey authority and highlight the object of an action. However, this often leads to confusion. When used in formal documents, the 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, the passive voice delivers insufficient information to explain a problem and solve it. The active voice makes documents stronger by showing responsibility or giving credit for an action.
Converting sentences to the 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 law in the United States in 2010. Other countries have developed campaigns, policies and guidelines. It has become increasingly 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, and 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 the present tense, so that the text is easier to understand.
3. Be consistent
Natasha Costello highlights using different expressions for the same thing may lead to confusion. This may be the case for words such as obligation, commitment, and requirement. Using synonyms may seem like a good solution but when 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.
Capitalisation. If you capitalise 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 they understand the text so that their 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 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.
Contact me to discuss the details of drafting and translating documents into Polish.