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Your First SFU Policy Summary: GP 44 Policy in Plain Language
Have you ever read a legal document and thought to yourself “What on earth does this word mean?” Have you ever wished for a simpler, jargon-free text that leaves no room for confusion or frustration? If you answered yes, join the club!
Legal documents like policies or laws can be very complex and ambiguous. They can turn the reading experience into a frustrating trek with a hurdle around every corner. Field-specific jargons, complex sentence structure, and lengthy sentences that stretch over three-four lines are among the many factors that make texts hard to follow. That said, the difficulty of legal documents doesn’t solely stem from the language used – it would've been an easier task for plain-language professionals to craft simplified texts. The aesthetic and visual aspect of texts is equally important. For example, seeing condensed pages brimming with words with little white space puts the reader off because it gives them no chance to catch their breath while reading. The page layout also plays a significant role in increasing or decreasing readers’ engagement with a certain text – think of bullet points vs. a series of endless paragraphs.
How does all of this relate to SFU’s Sexual Violence and Misconduct Policy?
Policies are one type of legal writing, and SFU’s Sexual Violence and Misconduct Prevention, Support and Education (GP 44) Policy is one of them. As the research assistant at SFU’s Sexual Violence Support & Prevention Office, I have worked alongside the director on reviewing GP 44 Policy. The Policy became my companion for eight months, and truth be told, I came to appreciate the way it was written and organized. In other words, I agree with many SFU members consulted during the review that this Policy is much clearer than other policies at SFU.
But limitations still exist as to how simplified a legal text can be, and this is what inspired me to create a simplified policy summary. It serves as an accompanying document to the original Policy and meant to be short, simple, accessible, and visually appealing. After all, SFU has a huge international population of both students and staff. This means that language proficiency is not the same for all the university community. Therefore, the simplified policy summary attempts to be more inclusive and representative of SFU’s diverse community. Moreover, reading dense legal texts can be even harder for people affected by sexual violence and misconduct who might be looking for a quick and easy legal reference.
To squeeze a 14-page policy into four pages, I had to make many challenging decisions involving choosing the most important policy sections to cover, the appropriate length of each section, among many others, and this brings me to the next point.
How can formal documents be written in plain language?
The Government of BC, the Translation Bureau of Canada, and others have created guidelines to writing documents in plain language. Here are some useful tips that I myself used while writing the summary:
- Consider your audience: Who they are and what their knowledge and needs are.
- Use everyday words; less jargon (involuntarily undomiciled vs. homeless).
- Define jargon that is unavoidable to use.
- Use active voice (e.g. The university developed this policy vs. The policy was developed by the university).
- Avoid nouns made of verbs (e.g. establish vs. the establishment of).
- Shorten your sentences (15-20 words) and paragraphs (150-250 words).
- Use headings, vertical lists, tables, illustrations – but don’t overdo it!
- Emphasize text using bold (no italics, underlining, or capitalization).
- Avoid acronyms (and define them if used).
As you can see, writing in plain language is about writing clearly, concisely and with the reader in mind. I hope that this small project sparks some interest in the benefits of plain-language at SFU to create policies that are more inclusive, accessible, and reader-friendly.
This is the first part of a series on plain language in the context of sexual violence. To read part two, click here.
About the author: Shoak Alhussami is a recent master’s graduate in Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies. She has also worked at the SVSPO as the research assistant to support the GP 44 Policy review. She is passionate about gender and sexual equality, women’s rights, ending gender-based violence and fighting heteropatriarchy. When not working, she would be browsing linguistics or literature books and memes!