Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Plain Legal Language - A New Book & Interview with Cheryl Stephens

Nothing should make one feel better than to promote a colleague who's written a new book. And along those lines, I offer my post today partly to congratulate, and partly to help promote, the launch of Cheryl Stephens' new e-book Plain Language Legal Writing; available for purchase at LuLu.com.

Cheryl Stephens, who some of you may know from Building Rapport, the plain language blog, is a leader in the field of plain language communication, and provides training and workshops to clients all over North America.

The following short interview discusses both Cheryl's approach to plain legal language, and a bit more about the book launch.


SM: Thanks Cheryl, I guess the best place to start is to find out exactly plain language is?

CS: Plain language is writing, or any language, that is clear and understandable, so that it’s easy for people to get — and use — information that is important to a person's life.

SM: What kind of information?

CS: Well, think of anyplace you’ve seen legalese in your own life: contracts, regulations, waiver forms and releases, even the agreement you have to sign whenever you install software or sign up for something online.

SM: You’re saying those things don’t have to be written in legalese. Are we going to lose something when it comes to more complex discourse?

CS: There is no reason that legal language — language regulating legal rights and duties — has to be incomprehensible. It can be made plain enough for its intended audience.

Plain legal language is being written every day. Those who defend out-dated, poorly-written gibberish on the grounds of its complexity should be embarrased.

SM: So what's the process? What do lawyers to know to write in plain English?

CS: We have a process which takes into account the reader's interest, reading skill, and need for the information. It is an elaboration of the classical approach to writing effectively.

By the way, we now talk about plain language instead of plain English, because the ideas apply to communication in any language. Whatever the language, the aim is clarity and usefulness of the information.

In English, a number of shortcuts and guidelines have been developed to help the person who is not a writer by profession. Most of the US state laws requiring plain English set out some of these as requirements or measurements of plainness. In Canada, the laws tend to demand qualities like "clear" or "readable" and so on.

SM: Ok, so explain more about the new book -- Plain Language Legal Writing -- How is it different, and why did you write it?

CS: A lot of books have been written about legal drafting — writing contracts or drafting laws. But I am addressing a more basic need. All lawyers need to be able to write clearly and plainly for clients and the public. They write letters, opinions… That’s what my book addresses.

SM: Explain the contest. What’s that all about?

CS: It’s a contest to rewrite a section of the U.S. Copyright Act — both to rewrite it as the law would look in plain English, and to write a clear explanation for the general public.

I want to show the difference between legal drafting and legal writing. One task is to redraft the legislation in plain language, and that’s a specialized skill. Not every lawyer needs to know how to do that. But the other task, to explain the law in plain language — that’s a skill every lawyer does need.

SM: And that’s what your new book is about?

CS: Yes. I wanted to write a simple but complete guide for lawyers who want to make their writing clearer.


VLLB readers can visit PlainLanguageLegalWriting.com to find out more about the book, and the drafting contest. A big congrats to Cheryl on the new book, and continued success to her in the future!




Blogger Angela Harms said...

This is a great book. I know, because I edited it. :) Anyway, I thought I'd mention that it's not only an e-book; it's available in a very nice print version too.

12:55 PM  

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