How to Humanize a Zoning Ordinance: Practicing the Art of the Possible While Writing Laws for Bureaucrats and Citizens

Date of Graduation

Spring 2007


Master of Arts in English



Committee Chair

Kristene Sutliff


This paper provides some basic principles of good writing to persons seeking to write or revise a zoning ordinance, which is a legal and technical document dealing with certain aspects of city planning. The document design field today is fertile in terms of the many techniques it has developed for producing highly readable documents, yet most city planners are totally unaware of such techniques. Many zoning ordinances feature ponderous, legalistic prose and pedestrian page layout. This paper provides simple guidelines that should help persons untrained in professional writing to produce documents that a lay reader of average literacy can easily understand. In sum, this paper contends that (1) many zoning ordinances contain a good deal of poor writing, (2) writing documents according to the established good writing practices embodied in this paper's guidelines could greatly diminish the amount of poor writing found in this genre, (3) given the fact that the audience for this kind of document is a lay audience wanting to be informed quickly of its rights under zoning law, it would behoove the authors of such documents to produce text that can be understood on the first rather than the third or fourth reading, and (4) the time spent by a local government producing easily understandable documents can save time overall by reducing misunderstandings that arise when documents are poorly written.


guidelines, writing, zoning, readability, legalese

Subject Categories

English Language and Literature


© Robert Stephen Reed