How to Write Good Terms and Conditions

Ever clicked one of those ‘I accept the Terms and Conditions’ boxes without actually reading the Terms first?

I agree to the Terms and Conditions (even though I didn't read them...)

Unless you’re a lawyer, the answer is probably yes.

It’s hardly surprising. In a 2008 study, researchers estimated that if you read the full text of every Privacy Policy that you accepted, it would take you 76 working days each year.

As a consumer, accepting Terms and Conditions or Privacy Policies without reading them can be risky. You might give away rights without realising it (in one experiment, several people even agreed to swap a child for free wifi access)!

It’s a problem for businesses too: you want your customers to understand what they’re agreeing to. But if no-one is reading the legal pages of your website properly, how can you get the message across?

Here are a few tips to make your pages less daunting:

1. Keep it short

The iTunes User Agreement has been widely mocked for being a whopping 56 iPhone screens long. PayPal’s terms are longer than Hamlet. No-one wants to scroll through that much text.

Clearly you can’t leave out important legal protection from your Terms & Conditions (T&Cs). However, you can change the way you write them. Many T&Cs include a lot of fluffy or pompous language which adds nothing.

For example, here are the opening paragraphs from the UCAS website T&Cs:

This page (together with the documents referred to on it) tells you the terms of use (“Terms”) on which you may make use of our websites www.ucas.com and www.ucas.ac.uk(link is external) (each the “website”), whether as a guest or a registered user. Please read these terms of use carefully before you start to use the websites. By using our websites, regardless of how you access them, you confirm that you accept these terms and that you agree to abide by them.

If you do not agree to these terms of use, please refrain from using our websites.

Is all that necessary?

No.

There’s no need to distinguish between guests and registered users: both are “mak[ing] use of the website”. Similarly, “regardless of how you access them” is redundant: anyone using one of the websites is, by definition, using the website.

And why waste space telling someone to “read these terms of use”? Either they will or they won’t. If they choose not to, that won’t hold up in court as an excuse.

Those two paragraphs could be replaced with something like this:

By using www.ucas.com or www.ucas.ac.uk, you agree to the following terms. If you’re not happy with these terms, please don’t use the websites.

Now, I’m not a lawyer (so don’t use that example without checking it’s ok!) but as someone visiting a website, those both say virtually the same thing and I know which one I’m more likely to read.

2. Break it up into manageable chunks

We’ve all seen those user agreements that go on for miles, with reams and reams of uninterrupted text. Wouldn’t it be easier if it was all cut up into nice clear sections?

This is particularly important if your overall terms are long (you did read point 1, didn’t you?)

Give each section a header (ideally a nice friendly one) to break up the monotony of the text. The headers will also help users to get a quick overview of what your terms cover.

Think about how you structure the terms. Depending on your business, they might fall into rough categories like liability, payment terms, cancellation etc. Alternatively, you could arrange them into sections “what you’re allowed to do”, “what you can’t do”, “what we’ll do if…”

It’s sometimes helpful to list all your headings up front (with links to the relevant sections, of course).

3. Avoid ‘legalese’

Of course it’s important that your terms and conditions or other legal pages are robust and written properly to avoid any ambiguity. Unfortunately, T&Cs are often filled with ‘legalese‘, which is not only incredibly dull to read but also very hard to understand.

Writing (or re-writing) in plain English will make your terms clearer, and improve the chances of someone actually reading them.

Four quick ways to cut legalese:

  • Break up long sentences into shorter ones.
  • Replace lengthy phrases like “it is incumbent on the client to…” (“you must…”) and “until such time as…” (“until…”).
  • Similarly, avoid legal-sounding words like “hitherto” (previously), “pursuant” (in accordance with), “transpire” (happen). If there’s an everyday word or phrase that does the same job, use it!
  • Ditch those legal ‘duos’ like “fit and proper” and “due and payable” which just say the same thing twice.

4. Highlight the important bits

I’ve said a lot about cutting out unnecessary words. Now I’m going to recommend adding some!

A good way to help people understand your terms is to highlight the key points that they need to know. Even if they don’t read the whole document, this makes it much harder for them to claim that they didn’t know their key rights and responsibilities.

Extract from Tumblr privacy policy showing how Tumblr highlight key points in easy-to-understand language
Extract from Tumblr privacy policy

5. Use examples

No matter how clear your terms are, some people will still be unsure what they mean and how they apply.

Examples are a great way to make the terms feel ‘real’ and relevant to the reader. Sometimes an example can illustrate a point far better than several paragraphs of text.

As with headers and highlights, they also help to break up the flow of text, making it appear less daunting.

Extract from CodeCanyon terms of use
Extract from CodeCanyon terms of use

 

Do you have any tips for writing good legal pages, or examples of good (or terrible) ones? Leave a comment to let me know.

Want more blog posts?

Subscribe to get my latest blog posts straight to your inbox

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *