21 Jun 2018

Writing style is the cornerstone of readability, ensuring text is relevant and capable of being clearly understood by its intended readership. Style includes a good but not pedantic approach to grammar, simple sentence structure and correct punctuation. Style also means following the sometimes neglected rules of specification writing:

Clarity   Accuracy   Repetition   Brevity   Logic

CLARITY means using plain English, avoiding legalese and jargon and restricting vocabulary to words in common usage. Avoid using alternatives (like excavate for dig) just to make the text more interesting. Nevertheless words should be selected to ensure that their meaning is clear and unambiguous, while phrasing should be brief and expressed in the imperative mood. Use Provide light fittings….’ not ‘The contractor shall provide light fittings…’

ACCURACY Ensure consistency and accuracy by using the same simple terms throughout (‘use,’ ‘supply,’ ‘submit’) and employ accurate and consistent phraseology for repeated clauses. Avoid generalisations, or unclear words or phrasing. Avoid acronyms and abbreviations, unless very well known and incapable of simple error. Blanket clauses implying responsibility for the general or the unknown, must be avoided.

Don’t use gender-specific words and phrases. And avoid nominating specific control functions to particular persons (say architect, engineer, surveyor) unless this is intended. In particular avoid words such as ‘approve’ or ‘approved’ unless this is an essential requirement of the contract.

Avoid redundant and misleading paragraphs; in particular poorly or loosely worded SCOPE clauses at the start of specification sections. SCOPE clauses are legally dangerous as they could be taken by a contractor or subcontractor as encapsulating everything that is required. They are best avoided altogether. At the most they should be restricted to a simple extension of the section title.

Also avoid clauses such as ‘read the General section with this section,’ which might imply that the specification can be broken up into individual parts – a dangerous process contractually.

And don’t repeat general instructions to the contractor in every section unless there is a particular concern (such as the prevalence for some workers to leave debris on site, or a specific risk of damage to adjoining work or finished work).

Avoid listing overly specific, or indefinable requirements such as ‘best trade practice,’ ‘first class work,’ or ‘acceptable standard.’ Only require ‘approval’ or ‘inspection by….’ where this fulfils some specific purpose.

Carefully check secondary consultants’ and specialists’ specification sections to ensure consistency of meaning. Some consultants can include indefinite phrases like ‘builders work,’ or include contractual issues, or even monetary amounts in amongst the technical data. 

REPETITION Documents are meant to be complimentary. The principles to follow are:

  • say everything, but say it only once. Repetition is inadvisable and legally dangerous
  • avoid erroneous information (such as listing a standard that is not referenced in the text) just in case
  • if something applies, include it once. If something does not apply, remove it or leave it out
  • if information is on the drawings, don’t repeat it in the specification, unless the subject requires amplification
  • if an issue is covered in the conditions of contract, don’t repeat it in the specification.

Matters of contract and/or tender must not be included within the technical text.

BREVITY You would not include irrelevant details on drawings and similarly there is no justification for including irrelevant clauses or redundant words in the specification.

LOGIC The Masterspec sections are set in an easily recognisable pattern, with logical and meaningful clause titles and a logical numbering system for all clauses. Cross-referencing within the specification is kept to a minimum, because of possible future changes or project-based modifications. Where unavoidable, clause names rather than numbers are used for cross referencing.

Keep matters of contract, tender and administration separate from the technical sections of the specification, except for specific instructions on quality, or for instructing/informing others (such as a sub-contractor), for example:

  • The obtaining of samples, tests and certification
  • The setting of standards of performance
  • Requirements to provide guarantees, warranties, as-builts, or maintenance information.

This approach allows the technical sections to be more readily used with any chosen method of pricing, administration or contract. It also adds certainty for the contractor and/or project manager when attempting to locate all relevant contract, pricing or administrative requirements.

Don’t specify for failure, such as specifying repairs following damage. That is for the conditions of contract to resolve.

Finally don’t address individual matters to ‘the contractor’ - the whole document is addressed to that one person or entity. 


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