Using tools to analyze and measure language simplifies plain language writing and editing. At CPLEA, we use a combination of tools to look at where and how to clarify our writing:
- Microsoft Word: The most common plain language editor has some powerful built-in features.
- Hemingway Editor: Loyal to its namesake, the Hemingway Editor helps you draft clear and precise language.
- WriteClearly: A simple plain language browser bookmark that highlights complex legal writing.
The following chart compares the three tools:
Almost every office in Canada uses Microsoft Word. It is the most common format for sharing documents. It is also an excellent tool for identifying problems and solutions to common plain language issues such as language comprehension level, punctuation, grammar and overuse of passive voice. Word is not a plain language editor out of the box – it requires changes to some settings.
To set up Word for plain language editing, you must change the proofing settings:
- Go to File, then Options and then select Proofing.
- Beside the Writing Style heading, select “Grammar & Style” and click the “Settings” button. You will get another list of items to check off.
- Under Grammar, select everything.
- Under Style in the same dialog box, make sure every box is checked. This is where you will find the settings for passive voice, misused words, jargon, wordiness and other important plain language style measurements.
Before starting work on plain language editing a document, it is a good idea to measure your starting point. To do this, select “Review/Spelling & Grammar.” After checking the spelling and grammar, Word will give you a score.
As a simple test, we will use the text from the Rogers’ “Million Dollar Comma” case. This is a good test as the wording is grammatically correct but does not mean what Rogers’ intended. The text reads:
The agreement “shall continue in force for a period of five years from the date it is made, and thereafter for successive five year terms, unless and until terminated by one year prior notice in writing by either party.”
Word clearly thinks this sentence is passive and hard to read with a Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level of 17.4!
Once you have recorded the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level and Passive Sentences scores, go back to File > Options > Proofing and click on “Recheck Document.” This time, go through each suggestion and fix any issues. Once finished, you will get a new score showing any improvements.
The Hemingway App markets itself as making your writing bold and clear. When trying to describe plain language to anyone, I have always said, “Write like Hemingway” as Hemingway is known for his clear and precise language. The Hemingway Editor is a free web browser-based editor that embraces Hemingway’s way with words.
To use the Hemingway Editor, go to the Hemingway App website and copy and paste the document you are working with onto the page. Hemingway will immediately give you a Readability score on the right side of the screen. Hemingway checks your document for important readability factors such as adverb usage, passive voice, complex words and hard to read sentences.
Hemingway highlights parts of the text in different colours. For example, the part of the sentence that is passive will be in green and complex phrases are in purple.
Hemingway does not identify the famous sentence as incorrect. However, the editor shows that the sentence is very hard to read, is passive and uses complex words. Clicking on the purple “shall” will give the alternatives “must” and “will.” Hemingway scores the sentence at a Grade 8 level, which is much better than Word.
WriteClearly is a simple browser-based tool created by OpenAdvocate for legal plain language writers and editors. It will analyze the readability and provide suggestions for improving the Flesch-Kincaid score.
Installing WriteClearly on your computer is very easy. Go to WriteClearly’s website and drag the blue “WriteClearly” button onto your web browser’s bookmark bar.
To use WriteClearly, you need to get your text into a web browser. If you have already used Hemingway, click the “write” tab at the top right to remove highlighting and select the WriteClearly bookmark. You will get the results at the bottom of your web browser. If there are multiple suggestions, you can click through using the next and previous buttons.
Using our Rogers’ Million Dollar Comma text, WriteClearly finds the sentence to be too long and suggests simplifying it. It does not identify the passive language in this sentence or the complex words like the Hemingway Editor. WriteClearly’s strength is giving alternative wording to complex legal language.
These tools work together to help plain language editors do their job quickly and efficiently. By identifying problem areas and recommending fixes, editors are able to measure their work and improve readability. Since each tool provides a different readability score, it is important to stick with one for measurements. Although Word has the strictest scoring system for Flesch-Kincaid readability, it is consistent and accessible in a format that is familiar to all editors. Plain language editing can be challenging but the end result is a better document. Happy editing!