Don’t try to be too formal in policy writing

A fountain pen writing with black ink on ruled notebook paper.

The larger an open source project gets, the more policies it develops. And as the number and scope of policies increases, the tendency I see is to write in an overly formal style. It makes sense: open source developers love to play lawyer. And, of course, there’s a natural tendency to make our project’s guiding rules look like the laws that guide our countries. As natural as this tendency may be, you’re better off avoiding it.

When one tries to write formally, the end result is often more confusing. Instead of simple, straightforward sentences, the reader faces the literary equivalent of a hedge maze. Write short sentences. Provide clear subjects, actions, and objects. Avoid extraneous phrases like “as defined herein.”

Be specific. Instead of saying “eligible voters,” say (for example) “steering committee members”. This avoids uncertainty about who is eligible to vote.

The more straightforward your word choices and sentence structure, the easier it will be for your community to understand. This is particularly true for community members who aren’t native speakers of the policy’s language. Remember, you’re setting rules for your community to follow, not creating an iron-clad contract.

This post’s featured photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash.

Ben formerly led open source messaging at Docker and was the Fedora Program Manager. He is the author of Program Management for Open Source Projects. Ben is an Open Organization Ambassador and frequent conference speaker. His personal website is Funnel Fiasco.


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