As a law student you do a lot of writing, and there’s a good chance you’re doing much of it wrong.
By wrong I don’t mean you’re splitting infinitives or dangling participles. Those are easy fixes that can be corrected with the help of a stylebook – especially this one right here.
No, I mean you’re probably making the basic mistake of worrying too much about getting your thoughts and feelings down on paper. You’re obsessed with what you have to say.
Wait, what? Isn’t the whole point of writing?
Yes and no. Of course the goal of writing – whether it is an exam essay, a cover letter or a resume – is to express yourself in words and sentences. But all your lovely prose won’t mean a thing if it leaves the reader bored, baffled or battered.
Reader Expectancy Theory
The solution is Reader Expectancy Theory. The pioneer in this field is George D. Gopen – a professor emeritus at Duke University who also has a law degree from Harvard and a literature degree from Brandeis.
Dr. Gopen created something called the Reader Expectation Approach, a method that allows writers to accurately predict how most readers will interpret their texts. This opens a new door to the creative process by giving writers real-world data on what impact their words are likely to have.
To get there, Dr. Gopen used statistical research. For instance, he surveyed readers and found that certain locations in a sentence – such as right before a period or semicolon – are more important than others. These are called “stress positions.” Words that appear in the unstressed, middle portion of a text tend to be glossed over or lost. Words at the beginning or end stand out.
Some of this is common knowledge. Journalism schools, after all, have taught generations of newspaper writers to open with a strong lead.
Where Dr. Gopen breaks new ground is by turning this into a scientific method. He did this based on data from living, breathing readers.
An example: a whopping 97 percent of readers assign greater importance to words that appear immediately before a period. So if you want to impress them, end with a Wow! Or a Wham!
5 Simple Rules for Better Writing
Dr. Gopen has helped thousands of people in politics, arts and business – not to mention the many students he assisted while teaching legal writing at Harvard Law – become more effective writers.
He says every reader wants answers to five essential questions:
- What’s going on here? What’s happening?
- Whose story is it? What is the perspective?
- How does this sentence connect backwards to the preceding sentence?
- How does this sentence lean forward to the next sentence?
- What words should I read with special emphasis?
If the writer successfully answers those questions, the writing will make sense. It will flow and have momentum.
Most importantly, the reader’s expectations will be met. What happens next can only be good.
- George D. Gopen http://georgegopen.com/
- Strunk & White, The Elements of Style http://www.amazon.com/The-Elements-Style-Fourth-Edition/dp/020530902X
Jay Reeves a/k/a The Risk Man graduated from the University of South Carolina School of Law in 1981. He has practiced in North Carolina and South Carolina. Formerly he was Legal Editor at Lawyers Weekly and Risk Manager at Lawyers Mutual. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org