Wordnerdery Sue Horner’s monthly tips on words and ways to reach readers – May 2021

Issue 99 - May 2021

Asking people to sign a release? Make it readable.

I’m taking part in a fundraising event this summer called Push for Your Tush. As usual with such events, I had to sign a release – actually a “RELEASE, WAIVER and INDEMNITY AGREEMENT,” all caps every time it is mentioned – for the organizer, Colorectal Cancer Canada.

(Full disclosure: I've been doing this 5K since 2014, and I’m not sure which year I saved the text with the idea of running a “before and after” on it. Maybe the release has been updated since then, and certainly the many conditions are less necessary with the now virtual event.)

You know me. I had to run this “AGREEMENT” through the Hemingway app, which measures how easy something is to read and understand. The result is a great visual display of all the “very hard to read” sentences in a striking pinky-red.

Oh dear. The app rates the wording at a post-graduate, scholarly-journal-type level, whereas the average adult reads at a Grade 8 level. (“Poor,” scolds the app.) Nine of 12 sentences are very hard to read. Notice the second paragraph, almost entirely taken up by one long, guaranteed unreadable 119-word sentence.

Now, I know lawyers phrase things a specific way in these AGREEMENTS to cover every possible situation. Still, if you want someone to know what they’re signing, make it simple, easy to read and understandable. Then put the full and binding legal detail in the fine print at the bottom of the page, or link to it somewhere else. That way, the lawyers can include all the “prior to, during or subsequent to” and “HOWSOEVER CAUSED” and “whether in law or equity” phrases they like.

Making something simpler and easier to read is no reflection on the brain power of your readers. It simply means you’re respecting their time and helping them get the point faster.

I rewrote the AGREEMENT using these easy ways to make it more readable:

  • Use more familiar words. “Abide by all rules, regulations, and instructions” may be used for legal reasons, but “follow the rules” sums up all the reader is going to understand anyway.
  • Cut sentence length. Sentences of about nine to 14 words will be understood by 90% of your readers, according to the American Press Institute. Anything over 43 words? Zero to 9%.
  • Take out repetitive information. Eyes will definitely glaze over at “claims, demands, damages, costs, expenses, actions and causes of action.”
  • Use the active voice. Passive voice (“may have been contributed”) takes more words, is awkward and often hides who is supposed to be doing the action.
  • Don't use ALL CAPS, which are harder to read and make you look like you’re yelling. If you want to emphasize a word, use bold.

Here’s my rewrite:

The new version is about half the length of the first, with zero sentences very hard to read. It comes in at a readable Grade 7 level. (“Good,” praises the app.) There are no alarming ALL CAPS directives.

How did I do? And have you seen a “before” piece of writing that needs an “after”? Please share in the comments or send me an email. I’m always looking for good (bad) examples.

Related reading:

Let this plain writing checklist guide your work

Try the Hemingway app and see the improvement as you edit

Recently in the Red Jacket Diaries:

Are these words really worth retrieving from the ‘linguistic cellar’?

Magic happens when those ‘big shoes to fill’ turn out to be your size

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