Monday, September 02, 2013

Clear, concise, and effective English for law students, bar examinees, and legal writers in organizations, private companies, and government offices (22): Using software -- StyleWriter 4, Drivel Defence, MS Word -- to improve your writing

[1] StyleWriter 4 editor software checks 10,000 words in 12 seconds for hundreds of style and English usage issues like wordy and complex sentences, passive voice, nominalization, jargon, clich├ęs, readability, spelling, etc.

StyleWriter 4 graphs your style and sentence variety, and identifies your writing habits to give an instant view of your writing. You can learn to adjust your writing style to suit your audience and task. You can learn, for example, the writing style of Newsweek, Time, The Economist, and Scientific American.

StyleWriter 4 is widely used in the US federal government (for example, the Environmental Protection Agency). It can be used by educators, students, and professionals in various fields - business, law, social or physical science, medicine, nursing, engineering, public relations, human resources, journalism, accounting, etc. Download your free 14-day trial copy now.

[2] Drivel Defence, free software from Plain English Campaign (identifies your long sentences and provides alternatives for long, complicated words)

[3] MS Word:

Go to Tools - Options - Spelling and Grammar.

Make sure that “Show Readability Statistics” is ticked.

Then select the text you want to test and select Tools - Spelling and Grammar (or click F7).

The dialogue box will ask if you want to check the remainder of the document. Click “no” and you will see the readability statistics.

Based on the statistics, re-write your text to get the following scores or percentages:

  • Flesch Reading Ease: 60 to 70 (or higher) 
  • Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: 8th to 9th grade (or below)
  • Passive sentences: reduce to 18% (Judge Mark Painter recommendation) or 15% (Asian Development Bank guideline)
  • Words per sentence: 25 words or below
  • Sentences per paragraph: 6 to 8
Reading ease score Style description Estimated reading grade
0 to 30
30 to 40
50 to 60
60 to 70
70 to 80
80 to 90
90 to 100
Very Difficult
Fairly Difficult
Fairly Easy
Very Easy
College graduate
13th to 16th grade
10th to 12th grade
8th and 9th grade
7th grade
6th grade
5th grade

For more information about the Flesch-Kincaid and other readability formulas, please read “The principles of readability” by William DuBay.

Why should you, as legal writers, aim for a reading level of 8th or 9th grade (or below)?

(a) Time Magazine articles are written at the 9th grade level.

(b) Judge Gerald Lebovits, New York City Civil Court, is a faculty member of Columbia University - Law School, Fordham University School of Law, and New York University School of Law. His philosophy of legal writing:
“Legal writing should be directed to smart high-school students. If they understand you, so will a more educated readership. Keep your words, sentence structure, paragraphs, and organization simple. Complex prose is weak prose. The erudite explain difficult concepts in easy-to-read language.”
(c) The following bestselling authors wrote at the 7th-grade level:
John Grisham
Tom Clancy
Michael Crichton
Clive Cussler
Mary Renault
Frank McCourt
Arthur Golden
Harper Lee
Mark Twain
(d) US Supreme Court justices want their decisions to be understood by ordinary people -- Bryan A. Garner’s 2010 interviews with US Supreme Court Justices, from Scribes Journal of Legal Writing Volume 13.

Justice Clarence Thomas:
I’d love one day for someone at a gas station who is not a lawyer to come up to me and say to me, “You know, I read your opinion, and I don’t agree with you.” Wouldn’t that be wonderful? “I’m not a lawyer, I read your opinion, I understood it, I don’t agree with you, but thanks for making it accessible.” So we talk of it in terms of accessibility.
Justice Stephen Breyer (in reply to Garner’s question, “Do you think it matters whether ordinary people can understand judicial opinions?”):
If an ordinary person who is not a lawyer can understand it, I think that gives weight to what the Court does, and law is supposed to be intelligible. They should be able to follow it without having to take special vocabulary courses. And the purpose of an opinion is to give your reasons, and you give your reasons both for guidance, but also it should be possible for readers to criticize the writer. Now, people can’t criticize what I say, they can’t explain why they think it’s wrong, unless they can understand.
[4] Text Content Analysis Tool, from Using English

Simply write or paste text you want to analyze (up to 500KB in size) and this website’s free text analysis tool will give you statistics on word count, unique words, number of sentences, average words per sentence, lexical density, and the Gunning Fog readability index. More detailed statistics are available to members.