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Minimize cross-references

Nothing is more annoying than coming upon cross-references in reading material. Cross-references frustrate any attempt to write clearly and simply. Most users consider them a bother, and just skip over them. This can be a problem when the document is a regulation!

Numerous cross-references can confuse users and make them less attentive to your message. They may also overtax your users’ short-term memory. Imagine the work it would take a user to puzzle out just this one short section from our tax regulations (26 CFR 1.1(h)-1):

(3) Section 1250 capital gain—(i) Definition. For purposes of this section, section 1250 capital gain means the capital gain (not otherwise treated as ordinary income) that would be treated as ordinary income if section 1250(b)(1) included all depreciation and the applicable percentage under section 1250(a) were 100 percent.

On the other hand, repeating bulky material over and over can be equally annoying to users. So there is a place for cross-references, but the challenge is to not overdo them.

How to minimize cross-references

There are several ways to deal with cross-references. The best is to organize your material so you can eliminate the need for cross-references. Often, you are forced to resort to a cross-reference because the material isn’t organized the way it should be, so material that belongs together is instead found in distant sections. However, given the complexity of some documents, it won’t be possible to eliminate them all. If a cross-reference refers to brief material, just repeat that material and get rid of the cross-reference. Sometimes, careful thought may reveal that you’ve included an unnecessary cross-reference.

Refer users to another section

If the cross-reference is to lengthy material that, if included, would make the wording long and complicated, you may have to refer users to another section. Typically, this would include long descriptive material, such as a long list of items or a list of requirements that you want to apply to a new situation.

Be sure that the reference you insert clearly describes the referenced material. That way, users can decide if they need to read it to know how the rule affects them. Sometimes just including the title of the referenced section is enough.

Let’s look at an example from the National Park Service.

In this excerpt, the first cross-reference is to brief material, so you can just repeat it here. The second cross-reference is to a long list of information; it’s probably clearest to keep the cross-reference. The third cross-reference probably isn’t necessary-the camper needs to know whether there is an animal emergency plan, but not the details of the plan contained in Section 52.

  • Before

    If you hold one of the vehicle entry passes listed in Section 18 for entry into a national park, you may camp in that park. But you may not sleep in a tent if the park has declared one of the animal danger levels described in paragraphs (c) through (h) of Section 51, and the campsite is not covered by an animal emergency plan as described in Section 52.

  • After

    If you hold a daily, weekly, or annual vehicle entry pass for a national park, you may camp in that park. But you may not sleep in a tent if the park has declared one of the animal danger levels described in paragraphs (c) through (h) of Section 51, and the campsite is not covered by an animal emergency plan.

Move cross-references to the end of a passage

If you must include cross-references, consider putting them at the end of the text, like a reference, rather than in the middle. This is less disruptive to the user, and less annoying. It gives users a chance to absorb your main message before your references elaborate on it. As an example, if you need to keep the second and third references in the national park example above, you might write it this way:

  • Before

    If you hold one of the vehicle entry passes listed in Section 18 for entry into a national park, you may camp in that park. But you may not sleep in a tent if the park has declared one of the animal danger levels described in paragraphs (c) through (h) of Section 51, and the campsite is not covered by an animal emergency plan as described in Section 52.

  • After

    If you hold a daily, weekly, or annual vehicle entry pass for a national park, you may camp in that park. But you may not sleep in a tent if the park has declared an animal danger level and the campsite is not covered by an animal emergency plan. See paragraphs (c) through (h) of Section 51 for animal danger levels, and Section 52 for animal emergency plans.

Referring to another agency’s regulations

If you want to require users to comply with certain requirements of another federal agency, which they would not otherwise have to do, you have to meet the requirements of the Office of the Federal Register (OFR). A federal agency may cross-reference the regulations of another federal agency only if the OFR finds that the reference meets one of the conditions specified in 1 CFR 21.21. You can find a discussion of these conditions in the OFR’s Drafting Legal Documents under Cross References.

Referring to other material in regulations

A cross-reference to material that does not appear in the Federal Register or the Code of Federal Regulations is called an “incorporation by reference” by the Office of the Federal Register. The OFR has very specific rules that agencies must follow to do incorporation by reference. You will find them in 1 CFR part 51 and Chapter 6 of the OFR’s Document Drafting Handbook.

Avoid these situations

Multiple cross-references in one section

Multiple cross-references make your user’s head spin, and you will fail to deliver any useful information. Reorganize your material to eliminate the cross-references, or at least to keep them to no more than one in each section.

Unnecessary cross-references put in to ensure that your users don’t miss something that applies to them

You won’t know where to stop cross-referencing. You should presume that users will familiarize themselves with your document to see what applies to them. Make sure your table of contents and headings are informative enough that users can find everything they need.

Cross-referencing definitions

Adding a cross-reference to a definition for the convenience of the audience may create a problem if you don’t continue to repeat it every time you use the word.

If you say Then you can’t later just say
a corporation as defined in Section 1 (when Section 1 clearly applies to your regulation and defines a corporation as having, for example, at least 50 employees) a corporation (Some readers may think the 50-employee limit doesn’t apply here.)

The “boomerang”

Rudolf Flesch (1979) named this particularly insidious cross-reference. It’s a reference that refers to the section it’s found in. It sends users on a futile hunt for another section of the same number, until they finally realize you are referring to the same section they were reading in the first place. If you mean “listed in paragraph (h) of this section” say it that way. The Office of the Federal Register’s Document Drafting Handbook tells you the proper way to refer to something in the same section of a regulation.

The “all-inclusive” cross-reference

It’s no help to your audience to say something like “As a permittee, you must comply with sections 542.6 and 543.10, and all other applicable laws and regulations.” What exactly does the term “all other applicable laws and regulations” cover? Do you expect your reader to become a legal scholar and go out and research the answer to that question? This form of cross-reference reflects a lazy writer. And it’s not likely to achieve much.

The never-ending story cross reference

This is the cross-reference that refers the reader to another section containing another cross-reference, which takes the reader to yet another section containing another cross-reference, and so on forever and ever. If you can’t follow the web of references, why do you think your audience will?

Final thoughts

Whether you use a cross-reference or repeat the material in the new location, you must remember to update the information if something in the cross-referenced material changes.

There is no hard and fast rule about when it’s reasonable to use a cross-reference. It depends on the purpose of the cross reference and the bulk of the material referenced. The bottom line is that you should minimize them to the extent possible.

Sources

  • Flesch, Rudolf, How to Write in Plain English, A Book for Lawyers and Consumers, 1979, Harper and Rowe, New York, pp. 82-93.
  • Office of the Federal Register, Document Drafting Handbook, 1998, pp. 1-15.