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How to Write in Plain English


I was on Facebook the other day, and saw a quote that said ‘if you can’t explain something simply, then you don’t understand it well enough’. This particular quote was attributed to Einstein. Of course, being the sceptical law student I am, I Googled it, only to find it wasn’t actually a verbatim Einstein quote, but rather ironically, a simplified version of some things he had said. Regardless of the source of this quote, it still rings true.

Lawyers and law students have a reputation for using big, unnecessary and complicated words. Although legal Latin and convoluted old High Court judgments are probably to blame, it really does pay to know how to write in simplified terms. Your lecturers (and in the future, your clients) will thank you for it.

Don’t feel as though you need to be Shakespeare

Be honest: did you actually understand Shakespeare’s plays before they were explained to you? Yeah, I thought not. The law is complicated enough as it is; don’t over complicate it by trying to sound like a lawyer from the 1700s. If your marker has to use a dictionary, it ruins the flow of the writing.

Plan, plan, plan!

Before you start writing an assignment, plan an outline of what you’re going to say. A big part of writing in plain English is structure. You want a logical and well-structured essay, not one that jumps around randomly. Start with a basic skeleton and then flesh it out. Your first paragraph should provide an overview of what your essay will cover. Use headings and dot points so your argument is easy to follow.

If a point you’re making doesn’t belong, move it to the relevant section or eliminate it. Be direct and to the point.

Write it down as you would explain it to someone

I’ve always found that if I don’t know how to word something, I try and explain it out loud. If I can’t do this, then I feel I don’t understand it and I do some extra research. Once you have your head around the concept, write it as though you’re talking to your non-law student friends (if your friends are exclusively from the law faculty, imagine your goldfish/brother/mother/Great Aunt Gertrude).

From there, re-write it more formally

Then remove all contractions (‘don’t’ becomes ‘do not’, ‘can’t’ becomes ‘cannot’ etc). Obviously, being legal writing, there will be legal jargon, but try not to go overboard if there is a simpler, real-world word for it. Use sensible sentence lengths – if it’s over three lines, it’s probably too long! Same goes for paragraphs; even double-spaced paragraphs shouldn’t take up an entire page without some breaks. Avoid having too many points in the one sentence and don’t try and pad out your writing. Chances are if you’re not hitting the word limit, you’re overlooking an important point or issue.

You don’t need to explain EVERYTHING

Writing in plain English is about making things easier to understand, but there are some things that you can assume your reader already knows. For example, you don’t need to explain that the High Court is higher than the Supreme Court. If it doesn’t need to be there, don’t include it!

Read it aloud

When you finish writing it, read it out loud. If it doesn’t make sense, re-write it. If you can’t finish a sentence in one breath, add some commas, or re-write it. Even better, read it to a friend (preferably someone who isn’t a law student). If they understand it, well done! You’ve done a good job. Now format that thing to the law faculty’s style guide requirements, submit it and have yourself a well-earned coffee!

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