Dr. Annetta Cheek, on behalf of Clarity International (https://www.clarity-international.org/)
I have been involved in plain language issues since the mid 1990s, first as a a federal employee and then in the private sector. Among other roles, I was a founder of the Center for Plain Language, and served as Chair of that organization for its first 11 years.
To evaluate Draftsmith, I used it to improve three different samples – two short explanations of international rules for a dog performance event, a model last will and testament, and a piece of a user agreement I found online. Despite the caveats below, the bottom line is that in all three cases the program did improve the document and make it simpler to read, even the very difficult user agreement.
Draftsmith works very well with Word. In the few cases that the program for some reason declined to offer a suggestion I just used its back button to go back and then forward again, and that resolved the issue. If you are willing to accept Draftsmith’s suggestions without change, you can move through your document very quickly.
Draftsmith offers many different editing options, and I didn’t spend a lot of time with most of them. I briefly tried the several offerings under their menu item “editing help,” but mainly I worked with their “Plain English” and “Simplify” options. While these options clearly produced somewhat different products, I didn’t see much overall difference between them. They just used slightly different wording choices to arrive at basically similar products. And I didn’t understand the rationale between calling one product “simplified” and another “Plain English.” Both options produced a somewhat easier-to-read version. Perhaps the distinctions would be more obvious with longer documents than I used for my review.
Like all such programs, you must check Draftsmith’s products carefully. The manufacturer cautions that your final product must have careful human oversight. In its efforts to make the documents easier to read, Draftsmith did introduce some errors in meaning as well as some legal errors. Unlike most programs I’ve seen, which offer advice issue by issue, Draftsmith offers complete-sentence rewrites. This is what makes it so fast. If you like only part of a recommendation, you can edit it before telling Draftsmith to change your text.
Since I have been involved in Plain English or Plain Language for almost 30 years, I need to comment on whether Draftsmith’s products is indeed Plain English. I became involved in Plain English in the US federal government back in the middle 1990s. Initially we called it Plain English but soon changed to Plain Language. The latter reflects our belief that the underlying principles apply across languages. There is now a widely-accepted international definition of plain language. It was recently included in an International Organization for Standardization (ISO) standard for plain language. That definition stresses the needs of the reader; it is not about specific linguistic techniques. Nevertheless, there are techniques that are widely believed to support Plain Language in the context of English. These include minimizing passive voice, avoiding hidden verbs (nominalizations), using pronouns, eliminating unnecessary words, preferring simple to complex words, using bulleted lists, and so on. I looked closely at what Draftsmith produced for me, and on these specific techniques I can say that
- For both passive voice and hidden verbs, Draftsmith often eliminated them, but not consistently, and in fact now and then it added one to a document.
- It used pronouns but (in my limited sample) only when the document already had them.
- It did a decent job of omitting excess words but clearly did not command many of the little linguistic rules that would allow it to do a thorough job with this task.
- Similarly, it did a decent job of changing difficult words to simple ones, but this is one area in which the author must check closely, to make sure that the substitution does not introduce error.
- Unfortunately, bulleted lists do not seem to be in Draftsmith’s repertoire. That’s probably a difficult technique to teach it. Perhaps in some future iteration of the program.
So, would I consider Draftsmith’s products to be Plain Language? No, I would not. But that doesn’t overshadow the fact that the program can help you simplify your written products.