Lawyers write every day. Yet how you express yourself in writing is as important as what you say. Many clients are under duress and need to “hear” the tone of your words when they read. Remember, when working with consumer clients, the average reading level of the U.S. population is 9th grade. Readability is of utmost importance. Several applications can help you write effectively for your audience and make sure that your tone is positive and helpful.
The Clear Language Group points out that even readers who read above the 9th-grade level will not be offended by jargon-free, quick, concise information provided in everyday language. Whether in a document or an email, set a friendly tone, use active voice, use language your clients will understand, define acronyms, and link to resources for more help and guidance.
When communicating via email, brevity is best. Many recipients are reading on mobile devices, almost ensuring that their attention is diverted. Another difficulty with writing an email is striking the right tone. It is easy to misread and misinterpret an email message. Grammarly studied the most effective opening for an email, and “Hi [Name]” was the most effective. Boomerang studied the best closing, which was some variation of “thanks.”
Along with correct grammar and punctuation, tone and readability are essential to effective email communication. Two applications can help check your email for these elements.
In addition to a lot of useful bells and whistles for getting an email to resurface in your inbox, Boomerang has a feature called Respondable that provides real-time scoring on subject length, word count, question count, and reading level. Advanced features also track positivity, politeness, and subjectivity. These tools are not always right, but they might make you stop to reflect on communicating more effectively. Boomerang for Gmail or Outlook is free for a limited number of emails a month, and it includes basic Respondable scores. To get Boomerang Respondable Advanced Features for Gmail or Outlook you will need the Pro package at $15 per month.
Grammarly checks for grammar, spelling, and punctuation. It also checks for clarity, engagement, and delivery. The application works with Gmail and Outlook, as well as Google, any browser, and the Windows desktop. In other words, Grammarly is available to check your writing anywhere you are composing a message or document on your computer. The annual plan is $140 per year for Premium.
In an email, Grammarly provides an overall score for correctness, clarity, engagement, and delivery. Still in BETA is the Grammarly Tone Detector, which shows whether your tone is friendly, confident, or optimistic. You can help it understand if it is reading your tone correctly. The results are imperfect, but it will make you stop and think about how you are coming across to the reader.
It is difficult to edit your own work, and some of the best advice is to write a document, then step away and return the next day to review and edit your writing. There are several tools that can help you edit your work, including some built into Microsoft Word and third-party plugins designed specifically for lawyers.
One Microsoft Word add-on, BriefCatch, has many similar features to WordRake. They both suggest edits to make your writing more concise. BriefCatch also provides a statistics panel that provides scores on “reading happiness”, “sentence length”, “flow index”, “punchiness” and “plain English”. You can see suggestions on how to improve each score. BriefCatch also provides a narrative report to provide a summary of improvement opportunities including how often you use the same transitional devices (e.g. “moreover”) or overused terms (e.g. “the fact that”). BriefCatch is $250 per year for a Microsoft Word plugin and WordRake is $129 per year for the Microsoft Word plugin (Mac or Windows).
Law school doesn’t necessarily teach lawyers how to write with empathy. Boilerplate templates and the firm’s “best of breed” document libraries may compound on writing that is often too dense and difficult to read. When writing to and for client consumption think about best practices and leverage these tools to get a little help.