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Use tables to make complex material easier to understand

You can shorten and clarify complex material by using lists and tables. And these features give your document more white space, making it more appealing to the reader.

Tables help your audience see relationships that are often times hidden in dense text. And for most readers, it’s not necessary to understand all possibilities and conditions, only those that apply to the reader’s situation.

Probably the most useful type of table is the “if-then table.” An “if-then” table organizes the material by a situation (if something is the case) and the consequence (then something else happens). The rewritten regulation in the “if-then” table below is far clearer than the dense text it replaces. It also makes the information seem less dense and easier on the eye.

If-then tables are powerful tools for simplifying complicated material. And tables generally use many fewer words that a straight textual explanation would use.

Examples

§ 163.25 Forest management deductions

Dense text

  1. Pursuant to the provisions of 25 U.S.C. 413 and 25 U.S.C. 3105, a forest management deduction shall be withheld from the gross proceeds of sales of Indian forest land as described in this section.

  2. Gross proceeds shall mean the value in money or money’s worth of consideration furnished by the purchaser of forest products purchased under a contract, permit, or other document for the sale of forest products.

  3. Forest management deductions shall not be withheld where the total consideration furnished under a document for the sale of forest products is less than $5,001.

  4. Except as provided in § 163.25(e) of this part, the amount of the forest deduction shall not exceed the lesser amount of ten percent (10%) of the gross proceeds or, the actual percentage in effect on November 28, 1990.

  5. The Secretary may increase the forest management deduction percentage for Indian forest land upon receipt of a written request from a tribe supported by a written resolution executed by the authorized tribal representatives. At the request of the authorized tribal representatives and at the discretion of the Secretary the forest management deduction percentage may be decreased to not less than one percent (1%) or the requirement for collection may be waived.

If-then table

§ 163.25 Will BIA withhold any forest management deductions?

We will withhold a forest management deduction if the contract for the sale of forest products has a value of over $5,000. The deduction will be a percentage of the price we get from the buyer. The following table shows how we determine the amount of the deduction.

If: and: then the percentage of the deduction is:
a tribe requests an increase in the deduction through a tribal resolution they send us a written request the percentage requested by the tribe
an authorized tribal representative requests a decrease in the deduction we approve the decrease the percentage requested, with a one percent minimum
an authorized tribal representative requests a waiver of the deduction we approve the waiver waived
none of the above conditions apply   the percentage in effect on November 28, 1990, or 10 percent, whichever is less.

§ 163.17 Deposit with bid

You can use variations on the if-then table to clarify other types of complicated provisions. Which of the following would you rather read?

Dense text

  1. A deposit shall be made with each proposal for the purchase of Indian forest products. Such deposits shall be at least:

    1. Ten (10) percent if the appraised stumpage value is less than $100,000 in any event not less than $1,000 or full value whichever is less.
    2. Five (5) percent if the appraised stumpage value is $100,000 to $250,000 but in any event not less than $10,000; and
  2. Three (3) percent if the appraised stumpage value exceeds $250,000 but it any event not less than $12,500.

If-then table

§ 163.17 Must I make a deposit with my bid?

You must include a deposit with your bid to buy Indian forest products, but the amount of the deposit varies.

If the appraised stumpage value is: you must deposit: and the minimum amount of the deposit is:
less than $100,000 ten percent of the stumpage value $1,000
between $100,000 and $250,000 five percent of the stumpage value $10,000
over $250,000 three percent of the stumpage value $12,500

Sources

  • Kimble, Joseph, Lifting the Fog of Legalese, 2006, Carolina Academic Press, Durham, NC, p. 70(B).
  • Murawski, Thomas A., Writing Readable Regulations, 1999, Carolina Academic Press Durham, NC, pp. 39-44.
  • Office of the Federal Register, Document Drafting Handbook, 1998, MMR 4.
  • Securities and Exchange Commission, Plain English Handbook, 1998, Washington, DC, pp. 49-52.