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Editing Tool Cleaning Up Legalese in Seattle

Washington State offices have a new “easy button” when it comes to writing and editing documents.

Admit it — you’ve got at least one colleague whose verbose writing style is confusing and downright grating to read, right? If so, you may want to introduce them to an editing tool that’s being used by some public agencies in Seattle to clear up language in the city’s official documents.

Called WordRake, the technology is a plug-in for Microsoft Word. Once activated, the program “rakes” a document, highlighting unnecessary words and phrases for the writer to eliminate. Seattle’s purchasing department, transportation department, Mayor’s office and City Attorney’s office started using the program earlier this year.

Designed by lawyer and author Gary Kinder a couple of years ago, WordRake is helping public officials and lawyers in Seattle to edit contracts, letters, ordinance language and policy documents. The program is based off of Kindler’s own legal writing programs and presentations.

“It takes the bureaucracy out of our writing,” said Nancy Locke, director of purchasing for the city of Seattle, in a statement. “As soon as I tried it myself, I wanted my staff to have this capability on their desktops. The program has helped them communicate better to our public and any tool that can do that is very valuable.”

The Washington State Bar Association (WSBA) has been using WordRake for the last six months. In an interview with Government Technology, Peter Roberts, practice management advisor with the WSBA’s Law Office Management Assistance Program, said he uses the program on a daily basis for any articles or handouts he writes for the WSBA’s continuing education materials.

WordRake operates similarly to the track changes functionality in Microsoft Word. According to Roberts, the key difference is that the program does not allow a user to “accept all” changes in a document. It requires a person to look at and evaluate each suggested change and make a decision whether to accept them individually.

Although putting a document through the WordRake process and subsequent change-by-change review does mean putting more time into the overall writing and editing process, Roberts felt the program’s ability to reduce wordiness was a significant asset. But he’s diligent about not relying too much on technology to craft his words.

“I’m careful not to trust WordRake totally,” Roberts said. “Anybody who is a serious writer is going to be careful about how much of this help you are going to use and how much of it is worthwhile.”

WordRake is a subscription-based program that can be purchased on one-, two-, or three-year contracts. It’s also available to download for a three-day trial period.

The tool could be helpful for many in the public sector, particularly given the emphasis on understandable communication put forward by the federal government in the Plain Writing Act of 2010, which requires that federal agencies use "clear government communication that the public can understand and use.” In addition, the state of Washington has its own requirements on using “plain talk” in its documentation.

But while the editing technology can help people write more clearly, could it discourage municipal employees or attorneys from placing an emphasis on learning how to write more concisely?

Roberts didn’t think so.

“I think that is a very welcomed tool and I said earlier, it really does help to train you to think,” he said. “I know in my own case it really helps you think more succinctly about the use of words.”

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines from 2011 to mid-2015.