Writing clearly is hard work.
Perhaps I should restate that. It
is clear that writing is hard work. No, that’s not what I meant. To write
with clarity is hard work. Maybe I should start over.
To write with clarity ain’t easy.
Not only do you have to know your
purpose, audience, and subject, but you have to apply certain principles of
good writing to convey your message effectively.
With so many things to worry about,
it’s nice when an organization like the U.S. Securities and Exchange
Commission offers advice on how to make clear writing easier – or at least
A Plain English Handbook is
a marvelous little handbook (83 pages), not just for the people who write
disclosure documents but for every on-the-job writer.
Of the handbook’s 12 chapters,
“Writing in Plain English” is of most value to the general writer. It offers
14 points of advice, including:
Use the active voice with strong
verbs. Rather than “The foregoing Fee Table is intended to assist
investors in understanding the costs and expenses that a shareholder in the
Fund will bear directly or indirectly,” write “This table describes the fees
and expenses that you may pay if you buy and hold shares of the fund.”
As any good handbook will tell you,
however, “the passive voice may make sense when the person or thing performing
the actions is of secondary importance,” so – if you’ll forgive the comma
splice – “Don’t ban the passive voice, use it sparingly.”
Find hidden verbs. Rather than
“We will make a distribution,” write “We will distribute.” Rather than “We
will provide appropriate information to shareholders concerning . . . ,” write
“We will inform shareholders about . . .”
Try personal pronouns. Compare
the following passages:
“This Summary does not purport to
be complete and is qualified in its entirety by the more detailed information
contained in the Proxy Statement and the Appendices hereto, all of which
should be carefully reviewed.”
“Because this is a summary, it does
not contain all the information that may be important to you. You should read
the entire proxy statement and its appendices carefully before you decide how
Bring abstractions down to earth. Rather than “No consideration or surrender of Beco Stock will be required of
shareholders of Beco in return for the shares of Unis Common Stock issued
pursuant to the Distribution,” write “You will not have to turn in your shares
of Beco stock or pay any money to receive your shares of Unis common stock
from the spin-off.”
Omit superfluous words.
than in order to, in the event that, and owing to the fact that,
write to, if, and because.
Write in the “positive.” Rather than “Persons other than the primary beneficiary may not receive these
dividends,” write “Only the primary beneficiary may receive these dividends.”
One last technique to help you
write clearly. As Warren Buffett suggests in the preface, “Write with a
specific person in mind.”
When Buffett wrote Berkshire
Hathaway’s annual report, for example, he pretended he was talking to his
sisters: “Though highly intelligent, they are not experts in accounting or
finance. They will understand plain English, but jargon may puzzle them.”
To those who have no siblings to
write to, Buffett makes this generous offer: “Borrow mine: Just begin with
‘Dear Doris and Bertie.’”
Sounds good to me. So, then. Dear
Linda and Lisa. You can download and print a copy of the handbook by visiting
the SEC Web site at
also can order a copy by calling 1-800-SEC-0330.
To help you practice some of the
principles and techniques presented in the handbook, I have posted some
exercises on my Web page. Have fun. Give my nieces and nephews a hug for
me. Hope to see you soon.