Some small prints are awfully written by lawyers and other people who are more interested in covering their behinds than explaining things clearly. I found the following two rare exceptions that set some good examples and I would like to share them with you,
- Washington Post blogging guidelines (PDF file) [via SacredFacts]
- Sun Microsystems, Inc. Contributor Agreement (PDF file) [via The Legal Thing]
My interest in seeing “plain English” being used in potentially complex/tricky subject matters was resulted from exposing to one unexpected source in 1998 — a handbook published by the US Securities and Exchange Commission.
OK, I am not geeky enough (yet) to pick up a random SEC handbook to read for fun! This particular handbook has a preface written by the great and insightful investor Warren Buffett! So I was intrigued by it and downloaded it to read.
Here, I will include Warren’s short preface to “A Plain English Handbook – How to create clear SEC disclosure documents” (PDF file) (emphasis mine),
This handbook, and Chairman Levitt’s whole drive to encourage “plain English” in disclosure documents, are good news for me. For more than forty years, I’ve studied the documents that public companies file. Too often, I’ve been unable to decipher just what is being said or, worse yet, had to conclude that nothing was being said. If corporate lawyers and their clients follow the advice in this handbook, my life is going to become much easier.
There are several possible explanations as to why I and others sometimes stumble over an accounting note or indenture description. Maybe we simply don’t have the technical knowledge to grasp what the writer wishes to convey. Or perhaps the writer doesn’t understand what he or she is talking about. In some cases, moreover, I suspect that a less-than-scrupulous issuer doesn’t want us to understand a subject it feels legally obligated to touch upon.
Perhaps the most common problem, however, is that a well-intentioned and informed writer simply fails to get the message across to an intelligent, interested reader. In that case, stilted jargon and complex constructions are usually the villains.
This handbook tells you how to free yourself of those impediments to effective communication. Write as this handbook instructs you and you will be amazed at how much smarter your readers will think you have become.
One unoriginal but useful tip: Write with a specific person in mind. When writing Berkshire Hathaway’s annual report, I pretend that I’m talking to my sisters. I have no trouble picturing them: Though highly intelligent, they are not experts in accounting or finance. They will understand plain English, but jargon may puzzle them. My goal is simply to give them the information I would wish them to supply me if our positions were reversed. To succeed, I don’t need to be Shakespeare; I must, though, have a sincere desire to inform.
No siblings to write to? Borrow mine: Just begin with “Dear Doris and Bertie.”
I hope you’ve learned something from Warren’s preface and may be even take some time to read “A Plain English Handbook – How to create clear SEC disclosure documents” to learn (it is useful even if you don’t deal with SEC filings at all).
As an aside, I often excerpt or quote things extensively. The reason I do it is because I want to put my own personal emphasis on the content to share with you. And I also take this as an excuse for me to re-read the piece carefully. After all, I don’t mind rereading insightful and fun stuff again and again.