Byte of Prevention Blog

by Jay Reeves |

10 Easy Tips for Powerful Legal Writing

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Pay more attention to the quality of your writing. Your readers – whether they are clients, judges or opposing counsel – will be eternally grateful. And it will increase the odds that they will actually read what you wrote.

Legal writing is often dull at best and incomprehensible at worst. It doesn’t have to be that way. A little extra care, combined with solid fundamentals and some insider tricks, can make all the difference.

“Most expository prose in law is pretty darned dreary,” says Bryan Garner, president of LawProse. “Lawyers come to think of on-the-job reading as a tedious, soporific part of the job. When we occasionally encounter something well-written, our attention immediately perks up. The languorous doldrums of reading suddenly disappear. We instantly realize, if only subliminally, that there’s an immense difference between writing and good writing.”

10 Tips for Strong Writing

The secret to great writing is that there is no secret. Like pretty much every other human endeavor, doing it well requires time, effort and a modicum of talent.

Here are some pointers for improving your prose:

  1. Say what you mean, and mean what you say. Don’t be cute, coy or circuitous. State your point clearly and directly. Don’t obscure your advice with legalese, verbosity or weasel words. If you think your client should accept a settlement offer, say “I think you should accept the settlement offer.”
  2. Edit, then edit some more. Great writing looks effortless. It isn’t. It is the result of hard work, concentration and patience. And revision. Followed by more revision.
  3. Read your work out loud. Words lying quietly on the page will sound different when they come out of the mouth. Reading out loud - no listener is required – is a way to spot problems and fix them. “Read a passage aloud and you’ll get an immediate sense of how the words fit together and work as a whole,” says this source. “The same way that you can hear a missed beat or wrong chord in music, you understand when your phrasing is awkward or unwieldy. Reading aloud instantly presents you with words, phrases, or even sentences that don’t work. They’ll feel awkward to perform, be difficult to read, and what’s more you’ll often find that your increased appreciation for rhythm helps a far better phrase to pop into your head.”
  4. Cut, cut, cut. Forget what you might have been told: saying the same thing over and over does not drive your point home. It drives your readers crazy. And why use two words if one will suffice? Don’t say, “It is uncontested that the hat on plaintiff’s head on the day in question was blue in color.” Say, “Joe was wearing a blue hat.”
  5. Vary your vocabulary and syntax. Throw in a surprise now and then to keep the reader engaged.
  6. Don’t assume you have a captive audience. “[T]here’s no such thing,” says Garner. “All readers, even paid readers, rebel with little provocation. As soon as it gets dull, they allow their minds to wander or simply stop reading. They quit. In law, of course, this happens all the time.”
  7. Pretend you are writing to a friend. You will want to entertain, inform and enlighten them – not punish them.
  8. Use short sentences. Sentences are neat and tidy packages. Powerful ones require only a word or two: “She lied.” “No.” You lessen their impact when you string a bunch of them together with ands and buts.
  9. Proofread. Typos and grammatical errors undermine your credibility as author.
  10. Let it sit overnight. When you return to your composition with fresh eyes, you will see new ways to make it better.

 

What tips would you add to this list?

Sources:

 

Jay Reeves practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina. During the course of his 35- year career, he has been a solo practitioner, corporate lawyer, legal editor, Legal Aid staff attorney and insurance risk manager. Today he helps lawyers and firms succeed through marketing, work-life balance and reclaiming passion for what they do. He is available for consultations, retreats and presentations (www.yourlawlife.com). Contact jay@yourlawlife.com or 919-619-2441 to learn how Jay can help your practice.

About the Author

Jay Reeves

jay.reeves@ymail.com | 919-619-2441

Jay Reeves practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina. Over the course of his 35-year career he was a solo practitioner, corporate lawyer, legal editor, Legal Aid staff attorney and insurance risk manager. Today he helps lawyers and firms put more mojo in their practice through marketing, work-life balance and reclaiming passion for what they do. He is available for consultations, retreats and presentations.

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