How to attract more readers to your text?

Self-editing your text might be challenging, but you can apply some easy fixes to attract more readers to your text. To make your text comprehensible to more readers, shorten your sentences, remove Latin phrases and typical legal terms like ‘pursuant to’ or ‘thereof’ and cull the repetitions. Analysing typical features of legal and legalese texts, I show you how to self-edit so that your writing is comprehensible to a lay readership and attracts more readers. I also consider the views of the leading style guides on the subject. Unless you are interested in catering to a specialised audience, applying these easy fixes may help increase your book’s readability and marketability. And in the long run — sales.

There are many topics, such as social inequality, copyright infringement, terrorism, gender equality, international trade, animal welfare, medical education and many others, that may not necessarily centre on legal matters but will use them for context. These publications may target a wider audience than exclusively the legal community while simultaneously using the style and language typical for legal literature. This is perhaps when one should ask: How to write about the law without sounding like a lawyer or, worse, without expecting your reader to be one?

How to remove legalese language from your text and attract more readers?

What is legalese language?

Legalese language is also known as legal jargon, legal speak or gobbledegook. (If you want to have fun with it, check out the gobbledygook generator created by the Plain English Campaign.) The Cambridge Dictionary characterises legalese writings as the language used by lawyers in legal documents that is difficult for ordinary people to understand. Except, it is not used only in legal texts — that is precisely my point. It is widely present in non-legal texts, and its presence makes it difficult to attract more readers to your text.

In this post, referring to legalese language, I mean the certain elements borrowed from legal publications that sneaked into more general non-fiction texts. Now, let’s look at examples commonly found in legalese prose and how to edit it to improve the readability of your text.

Eliminate Latin terms

Latin words and phrases that frequently pop up in legal literature become more prevalent elsewhere, especially in the citations, for their conciseness. These shortcuts function well in print, but in electronic editions, they become obsolete. For this reason, the New Hart’s Rules (included in the New Oxford Style Guide) and the 17th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style advise against them. Only allowances are made for specialist material such as (strictly) legal publications. Oxford opts for the author and short-title system, while Chicago suggests using the author’s surname.

Ipso factode facto and inter alia 

For example, ipso facto [by the fact itself], de facto [from the fact] and inter alia [among other things] are Latin phrases typical for legalese writing. For instance, ‘as an inevitable result,’ ‘in practice’ and ‘among others,’ respectively, can easily replaced them.

Idem and ibidem

In contrast, Latin used in the notes is perhaps more challenging to edit because it often performs a function. For instance, idem/id. [the same person], less frequently seen in non-fiction text than ibidem/ibid. [in the same place], appears in the notes when several works by the same author are cited successively. ‘Except in legal references, where the abbreviation id. is used in place of ibid., the term is rarely used anymore,’ advises Chicago (14.35) on this matter. Oxford Style Guide calls it ‘perhaps an excessive saving of space’ (17.2.5). It also points out the issues of gender and number. Technically, each form — male singular [idem], female singular [eadem] and female plural [eaedem] — is different and using them implies that the author’s gender is always known.

The examples below illustrate how Oxford and Chicago propose to amend idem and ibidem in the notes. Since both books have already been cited in the text in this exercise, we do not need to include the publisher details and full titles (following the Chicago reference style).

For citing different works by the same author, one after another:

Avoid3 Clunas, Art in China, 97.
4 Id., Superfluous things, 113.
Use3 Clunas, Art in China, 97.
4 Clunas, Superfluous things, 113.

When citing subsequently the same work:

Avoid3 Clunas, Art in China, 97.
4 Ibid.
Use3 Clunas, Art in China, 97.
4 Clunas, Art in China, 97.

Remove ‘pursuant to,’ ‘thereof’ and ‘hereinafter’

Unless you are citing legislation or a patent, ‘pursuant to,’ ‘thereof’ and ‘hereinafter’ should not appear in your text. At the least, they sound quite formal but more often — archaic. Why is that bad? Archaic language may confuse the reader and less effectively convey your argument.

The good news is that they can be easily replaced or edited. For instance, ‘according to’ and ‘of it’ sound more modern and less legalese than ‘pursuant to’ and ‘thereof,’ respectively. Similarly, you could swap ‘hereinafter’ for ‘hereafter.’ Chicago and Oxford allow ‘hereafter,’ especially in notes, to replace a full entry of a frequently cited work.

Edit the long sentences

It is difficult to define a long sentence, subject to the topic, style and other aspects of the context. But the consensus is that you should not exceed thirty–forty words. Several studies consider sentences of eleven words easy to read, while twenty-one words are relatively difficult. At twenty-five words, sentences become difficult, and at twenty-nine words or longer — very difficult.

The first step to success is to identify the culprit in your text. Writing assistants will flag your excessively long sentences. I like Expresso, a free web app which meticulously analyses text structure to flag long sentences. Once you locate them, there are several ways to address them:

  • Split the sentence into two.
  • Remove words that do not directly contribute to conveying the point, such as theathese or that. However, doing so may compromise the correctness.
  • Rewrite the sentence in Plain English, which, besides short sentences, prefers active verbs, avoids nominalisations and uses lists. (See How to write in Plain English by the Plain English Campaign for more details.)
  • Use a variety of sentence lengths to keep the readers engaged.
  • Make only one point per sentence.

Replace repetitions

Finding a good synonym may be a structurally simple yet semantically challenging task. Some words do not have replacements that perfectly convey the equivalent meaning. Still, you can make do with online tools. There are so many choices: from premium writing assistant software, through good old Word Thesaurus to my go-to for synonyms — Google dictionary.

If English is not your first language, checking sentence examples included in the dictionary entries is always helpful. They will help you find the closest substitute that best fits the context of your sentence. Working with a translation editor can also help polish the text and ultimately attract more readers.

Work with an editor

Editing is a crucial step in the writing process that can help improve the readability of your text and ensure it is fit for its target audience.

For instance, line editors focus on the structure and flow of your writing, while copyeditors check for spelling, grammar and punctuation errors. When it comes to reaching a wider audience, it is important to avoid using legalese jargon that may be unfamiliar to your readers. Line editors can help you simplify your writing by suggesting alternative words and phrases that are more accessible and easier to understand. They can also help you identify areas where your writing may be confusing or unclear.

Copyeditors, on the other hand, can help ensure that your text is free of errors and inconsistencies. They can correct spelling mistakes, grammatical errors, and punctuation issues that may detract from the readability of your writing. This is especially important if you’re writing for a non-specialist audience, as errors can be distracting and may make it harder for readers to follow your argument.

Overall, working with a line editor or copyeditor can help you improve the clarity and readability of your writing, making it more accessible to a wider audience. It is a worthwhile investment that can pay dividends in terms of reader engagement and the success of your work.

Final thoughts

The ultimate takeaway is, as always, to attract more readers to your text, consider whom you want to read your book and what you want to convey to them. The next step is to reflect these commitments in your style and vocabulary. However, in the meantime, these self-editing tips will help make your writing more accessible and appealing to a wider audience.

I have edited various texts that use jurisdiction, legal practice or international law to set the background for the main subject. I also have experience working with lawyers-turned-writers who pour their voluptuous speech patterns into their prose. Building on these projects, I decided to discuss the presence of legalese language in general literature, and I hope you will find my notes helpful. If you need help to attract more readers to your text, contact me for a free sample edit (and remember to use my early bird discount). For more editing tips for writers, follow me on MastodonTwitter, Facebook and LinkedIn or sign up for my newsletter.  

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I am an editor, indexer and a lifelong lover of literature with a PhD in literary history. I am an Intermediate Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading, a student member of the Society of Indexers and a vetted partner of the Alliance of Independent Authors.