Clear language and design tips
Do you need to create legal information materials to help your clients or support other work you’re doing? Below are some practical tips and resources to make your legal information clearer and easier to read.
Or, for a fuller look at clear language principles in designing print content, download our start-to-finish resource, the Better Legal Information Handbook.
Keep your sentences short and easy to read.
Try to limit sentence length to a maximum of 15 to 25 words. Look for ways to break up longer sentences. Try to limit paragraph lengths to a maximum of three to four sentences.
Choose the right words.
It’s usually best to speak directly to your reader – use “you” where that’s appropriate. Some other tips:
- Use the simplest word you can – “use”, not “utilize”; “try”, not “endeavour”
- Avoid using the passive voice – instead of saying “The documents should be brought by you to court”, say “Bring the documents to court”
- Define any legal terms in plain language
- Be consistent – using the same words over and over again is not boring, but helps people with low literacy understand better
- Watch out for acronyms – and spell them out where possible
Note that numbers can be tricky for some readers.
- When writing down dates, spell out the month rather than using a number to avoid confusion
- Be as specific as possible about time frames or limitation periods, and give examples using dates
- Present numbers visually by using tables and charts
- Avoid using Roman numerals
Read your information out loud.
This helps you detect language that might sound artificial or stilted – you can then replace it with less formal language. Or, get a coworker to listen to you read and give you feedback.
Recommended reads on clear language:
- Maryland People’s Law Library Writing Guide: This is one of the best resources we’ve seen about writing plain legal information for the public.
- Think-write: We like Greg Pendlebury’s “Wednesday wisdom” tips – short and snappy reminders on keeping things simple and clear.
- Center for Plain Language: We follow their blog and social media to learn about articles of interest on plain language. They also have a concise “Five steps to plain language” guide that is helpful.
Information that is cluttered or visually unappealing can be hard for people to read and understand. Here are some tips on how to make the design of your legal information more reader-friendly:
Highlight headings and important text. Make sure your headings stand out by using a larger font size, bolded text, or both. They help break up and signpost key points in your information, and should be prominent.
Make sure your documents have enough white space. Some best practices:
- Make sure that there are good-sized margins – at least 2.54 cm or 1” on all sides
- Use bulleted lists and ample spacing
- Leave more space above a heading than below so that the heading looks connected to the text that follows
Keep your print content easy to read. Choose standard, common fonts with easily recognizable letterforms, and avoid script or other novelty fonts. Also avoid overusing bold or italic text in your main text – use only to emphasize important words or short phrases.
Be consistent. Stick with no more than two fonts. Consider creating a short style guide for the format that you want to use for resources, and stick to it. Contact us if you’d like a sample style guide.
Recommended reads on clear design:
- Design Thinking 101: This blog post is a great introduction to design thinking.
- Law by Design: Margaret Hagan covers design principles in the legal information context.
- AccessAbility: A Practical Handbook on Accessible Graphic Design: This colourful guide covers both print and web design principles.
People read differently when reading information in print or online. For example, in print, we read most of the words on a given page, where online we read only 20 - 30% of the words we see. And unlike in print where we read in a linear fashion, we tend to skip around the page in different ways online.
Here are some tips on how to present effective online content.
Make your information easy to scan. Use lots of white space and headings – even more than in print. And avoid using more than one column if you can.
Get straight to the point. Research shows that people tend to skim and skip more content when reading online – and online reading patterns have changed over the last few years. Put the most important information first in case people stop reading halfway through.
Use half the word count you would use (or less if possible) than if writing for print format. People read 25 percent slower online than in print.
Make sure that people can find your content online. Choose keywords carefully so that people can find your information. And make sure that URLs closely reflect your content.
Recommended reads on writing for the web and on user experience or UX:
- Nielsen/ Norman Group: They conduct frequent research on user experience online, and we visit their site to find out their most up-to-date recommendations.
- Adobe’s “Tell it to me straight” guide on user experience: This blog post highlights the importance of plain language in improving UX.
- Web accessibility: An editor’s guide: This Editors Canada blog post covers key points to consider in making your web content accessible.
Even the clearest information will not be helpful if it isn't legally accurate. Here are some reminders on what to check for before you publish.
Have you worked with a legal expert? Make sure to have a legal expert draft or review your legal information.
Have you included real-life situations? Ask your legal reviewer to consider some of the real-life scenarios that affect your audience.
Have you checked all the facts and links to information? Make sure to check all hyperlinks, phone numbers, and other changeable information.
Have you added a disclaimer? Alert your audience to the fact that your materials contain legal information only, not legal advice.
If you create legal information for the public, CLEO's Better Legal Information Handbook for community workers will be a helpful resource. Consult the handbook when you start a project and follow the practical steps, all captured in an easy-to-use chart, as you go along.
- knowing your audience and writing for them
- choosing the best way to present your information
- applying plain language and design principles
- ensuring accuracy
- testing and evaluating
Watch our two entertaining and informative webinars on the how-to's of plain language.