Tag Archives: Reckless writing

The risk of writing functional documents and web content

A functional document (including web content) is a document that readers have to do something with. Functional documents include contracts, reports, advice, disclosures, fact sheets, policies, procedures, terms and conditions, letters. Most documents written by businesses and government agencies are functional documents.

Whenever you write a functional document you are taking on risk.

Whenever you write a document that people have to rely on in some way, there is a risk they may not understand, or may not get the full picture, and so act in a detrimental way.

A fundamental principle of plain language is that the writer takes prime responsibility for the communication. You can’t blame the reader if they don’t get it. You may not be able to blame the reader even if they don’t read the document. The question is shifting from “Did you read the document?”, aimed at the reader, to “Is the document readable?”, aimed at the writer.

We generally consider risk by thinking about likelihood and consequence; thinking about the likelihood a reader may misunderstand your document, or not read all of it; thinking about the consequence of a reader acting on missing or confused information.

You can probably predict likely consequences. For many documents, risk will be low because the consequences of misunderstanding are not that bad.

But you can only know about likelihood by testing the document. You can only appreciate how people are likely to read and understand your document when you run it past a sample of real users and observe their reactions and thoughts.

You can prove you have taken document risk seriously by having your document certified.




Publishing a document without testing – is that always reckless?

Reckless writing: Preparing a document without a deliberate and considered concern for readers, or a writer failing to apply their mind to consider how a document will be understood.

Any document published by business or government is a ‘product’. A document is the result of creative effort, designed to meet a particular need.

Nearly all physical products are tested before being released to the market. We couldn’t imagine an untested vehicle or drug being offered for sale – the risk is too great. We would not allow people to risk their lives just because an engineer or scientist says “I’ve worked hard and done my best.”; we insist they test their products in some way.

Yet so many information products, documents, are published without being tested, or released after only a low form of testing. They are published whenever the writer says “that’s good enough”. In many cases this amounts to recklessness – an indifference to whether the information is understood, a carelessness about how information is acted on.

Product testing is related to risk. I’ll only do minimal testing on this blog because the risk, both likelihood and consequence, of you not understanding what I am saying is small. But that’s not true of many other types of documents.

Many internal and external documents should be tested rigorously with end users. To not do so is reckless. For example:

  • Financial documents – loan agreements, insurance documents, financial advice and the like. Not thoroughly understanding these types of documents puts users at significant financial risk.
  • Medical information – misunderstanding this information can lead to poor decision making and lifelong consequences.
  • Any document written by government or a regulator – if a user does not understand these documents there is a risk they may break the law, or not receive things they are entitled to.
  • Legal documents and agreements – people must fully understand what they are agreeing to and what they are compelled to do.
  • Procedures, whether for an internal or external audience. Misunderstanding or ignoring procedures (because they are hard to read) can have significant impact.

Has this insurance document been written recklessly?

Reckless writing: Preparing a document without a deliberate and considered concern for readers, or a writer failing to apply their mind to consider how a document will be understood.

A friend read this statement in his Schedule of Insurance:

This Policy also covers your legal liability in respect to loss or damage to third parties’ goods caused by your negligence and whilst such goods are in your physical or legal care, custody or control.

“Sweet”, he thought, “I won’t need that extra insurance on my hire car. My liability policy will cover me if I have an accident.” – a reasonable conclusion, and something a reasonable person would expect to be covered in a business liability policy.

But the insurance company denied the claim after a minor accident in the hire car.

Buried deeply in the policy (page 15 of 22) was an exclusion clause – a ‘gotcha’. The exclusions started on page 10 with

This Policy does not cover any liability;

Five pages later, after wading through a poorly organised and long list of excluded items, processes and events is this:

23. Vehicles
for Personal Injury or Property Damage arising out of the ownership, possession or use by the Insured of any Vehicle:
(i) which is registered or which is required under any legislation to be registered,

There it is in black and white – a registered vehicle, in this case a hire car, is not covered under the policy. The insurance company blamed the policy holder, the reader, for this misunderstanding. The insurance company would likely claim this was a case of reckless reading, but I reckon it’s more likely a case of reckless writing.

A foundational principle of plain language is that the writer, not the reader, takes prime responsibility for effective communication. So, it is never OK to blame the reader.

Why I think this document may have been written recklessly:

  • I doubt the document was tested in any way with potential readers. If you don’t test a product (in this case, a document) how can you have any idea how it will perform?
  • It is unlikely the writer applied their mind to how the document would be understood – the writer likely did not consider what the reader expected the policy to cover.
  • There is no evidence the writer has a deliberate and considered concern for the reader – the policy is primarily designed to limit the liability of the insurance company.
  • The clause in the shorter document (the schedule), the document more likely to be read, does not mention any exclusions.
  • The content of the policy, especially the exclusions section, does not seem to have a logical, reader-based structure.
  • Basic Plain English techniques (familiar words, active voice, verbs, short sentences, conversational style) have not been used consistently.
  • Readability statistics on the policy are poor: Flesch reading ease: 23.0, Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: 17.9, Passive sentences: 41%. (Readability statistics do not give a definitive measure of how well a document serves readers’ needs, but are a helpful indicator)