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 terms 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, 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. Such 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?
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 characterizes 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 makes 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 self-edit to make the text understandable to a broader readership.
Remove Latin terms
Latin words and phrases that frequently pop up in legal literature become more prevalent elsewhere, especially in the citations, for the conciseness they offer. 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 facto, de 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. ‘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 below examples illustrate how Oxford and Chicago propose to amend idem and ibidem in the notes. In this exercise, both books have already been cited in the text, so 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:
|Avoid||3 Clunas, Art in China, 97. |
4 Id., Superfluous things, 113.
|Use||3 Clunas, Art in China, 97. |
4 Clunas, Superfluous things, 113.
When citing subsequently the same work:
|Avoid||3 Clunas, Art in China, 97. |
|Use (Oxford)||3 Clunas, Art in China, 97. |
4 Clunas, Art in China, 97.
|Use (Chicago)||3 Clunas, Art in China, 97. |
Get rid of ‘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 the, a, these or that. However, doing so may compromise the correctness.
- Rewrite the sentence in Plain English, which, besides short sentences, prefers active verbs, avoids nominalizations 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.
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 usually 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 will also help to polish the text and ultimately, attract more readers to your text.
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 reader 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 Mastodon, Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn or sign up to my newsletter.