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.”
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
One reason people 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.
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.
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
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 of||because of|
|for the purpose of||to|
|in relation to||about|
|in the event that||if|
|with reference to||about / 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: