Writing legal and technical content

We write so that everyone can understand us

One of our core principles for HSE.ie is that we write so that everyone can understand us. That means we use plain English.

This is also important for meeting accessibility standards.

If people can’t understand what we say, they can’t do what we tell them.

“1 in 6 adults has literacy difficulties in Ireland. The OECD Adult Skills Survey shows that 17.9% or about 1 in 6, Irish adults are at or below level 1 on a 5-level literacy scale... At this level, a person may be unable to understand basic written information.”

Source: National Adult Literacy Agency (NALA)

Writing for specialists

Even if you’re writing for a specialist medical audience, you should write in plain English. 

Plain English makes complex information quicker to read and easier to understand.

Writing in plain English can help your writing reach a wider audience, including people in other specialties, levels of training, other fields, and other countries around the world.

Be bold!

One reason people write legalese, or make medical writing complicated, is because ‘this is the way it’s always been done’. We feel pressure to conform to a style that it makes us sound authoritative, or ‘normal’, or right. We’re concerned we’re ‘dumbing down’, instead of opening what we write to a wider audience. It takes courage, as well as practice, to bring clarity to what we write.

Consider the risks

There is reputational and legal risk associated with providing content that is not easy to understand. If people can’t understand it, they can’t act on it.

Read about cases where courts have judged against organisations providing unclear information.

Rules for plain English in all legal and medical content

These rules deal with common problems in legal and medical writing. Following these will make your writing much easier to understand.

Also, see the rules for structure.

1. Use the active voice, not the passive voice

Say ‘The dog bit the man’. Don’t say ‘The man was bitten by the dog.’

2. Do not nominalise verbs

This means do not turn a verb into a noun. Say ‘The committee agreed to finance the new drug.’ Don’t say ‘There was committee agreement to finance the new drug.’

3. Use bullets correctly

If you use bulleted lists in the wrong way, you make text very hard to read. Follow the rules on bullets.

4. Don’t use redundant synonyms

Avoid strings of words which mean the same thing. Common examples in legal writing include:

  • alter or change
  • last will and testament
  • confessed and acknowledged
  • made and entered into
  • convey, transfer, and set over
  • order and direct

5. Don’t use compound constructions

Here are some common examples:



by means of by
by reason ofbecause of
for the purpose of to
in relation toabout
in the event thatif
prior tobefore
with reference toabout / concerning

6. Technical terms

When you’re writing for a general audience, you need to explain technical terms the first time you use them. You don’t need to do this if you’re writing a research report for a medical journal: use common sense.

Check your content is easy to use and understand

We use ‘readability’ tests as one measure of how easy it is to understand our content.

‘Readability’ tests check written content to predict what level of ‘reading age’ (level of educational reading ability) someone will need to understand our content.

We do this in: