Tips for Concision: 3. Diminish sesquipedalian vocabulary

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Reduce big words

Sesquipedalian (sesqui + ped) means a foot and a half long, and it’s exactly the kind of word to avoid. Unless you need a term of art or a legal word, your writing will be more concise and more readable if you use an everyday word instead of a fancy one.

So change ascertain to learn, commence to start, and request to ask.

For more ideas, check out Joseph Kimble’s list (available online) in the Michigan Bar Journal: Joseph Kimble, Plain Words, 80 Mich. B.J. 72 (Aug. 2001).

As you edit, root out words that are ostentatious (fancy), abstruse (hard), and infrequent (rare). Don’t write

She indicated she had previously encountered this conundrum

when you could write

She said she had faced this problem before.

But wait. Lawyers are smart and are used to reading and using sesquipedalian vocabulary. So if we’re capable of handling big words, why should we use small ones? Why should we dumb down our writing?

Let me be clear: to write concisely you don’t need to limit your own vocabulary. In fact, the larger your vocabulary, the better a writer you’re likely to be. As Rudolf Flesch said, it’s not about knowing big words; it’s about using them:

So if you have a big vocabulary and know a lot of rare and fancy words, that’s fine. Be proud of your knowledge. It’s important in reading and in learning. But when it comes to using your vocabulary, don’t throw those big words around where they don’t belong. . . . It’s a good rule to know as many rare words as possible for your reading, but to use as few of them as possible in your writing.

Rudolf Flesch, How to Write Better 25, 35 (1951).

More to come.

Tips for Concision: 2. Remove redundancy

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Remove redundancy.

I’ll ignore stock contract-drafting phrases like above and foregoing, agree and covenant, save and except, and others. They might need pruning, but I’ll focus here on analytical legal writing (memos, motions, briefs, reports, letters, e-mail).

Some redundancies are obvious: new innovations, past history, unexpected surprise. As you edit, look for these and remove them, of course. But other redundancies can be harder to spot; you’ll need to have your redundancy antenna up as you edit. Look at this sentence:

  • Isam Yasar alleged that in a conversation, his supervisor, Russell Dunagan, told him to stop complaining.

Here, conversation and told convey the same idea—they’re redundant. So unless the conversation itself is a key fact, removing that redundancy will shorten the sentence from 15 words to 12:

  • Isam Yasar alleged that his supervisor, Russell Dunagan, told him to stop complaining.

More to come.

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Tips for Concision: 1. Don’t fear possessives

Don’t fear possessives.

Why do we write this way?

  • the vehicle of the defendant
  • the property of the seller
  • the intent of the testator

It’s probably just habit or imitating the sound of legal writing in our heads. But those five-word phrases could be shortened to three:

  • the defendant’s car
  • the seller’s property
  • the testator’s intent

Are some legal writers avoiding possessives out of a fear of making an apostrophe mistake? Or out of a sense that possessives are informal (like contractions, which also use apostrophes)? Probably not, but let’s be clear: Possessive forms are not informal. Use them to improve concision.

A few legal writers were taught that inanimate things cannot possess—that it’s wrong to write the book’s title, the nation’s capital, or the chair’s leg. Instead, we must write the title of the book, the capital of the nation, and the leg of the chair. If it sounds a bit odd to you, you’re right. There’s no such rule, and those who promoted this idea were misconstruing the grammatical term “possessive.” In fact, a better term for “possessive” is “genitive case,” which carries no connotation of ownership. See Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage 475 (1994).

Occasionally the of form is preferable; you’ll write sentences in which intent of the testator just fits better or conveys your intended meaning more clearly. So I’m not offering a rule or a universally mandated edit. Just one technique to improve concision.

More to come.

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Recommended book: The New 1L

I recommend a new book from Carolina Academic Press:

The New 1L: First-Year Lawyering with Clients

edited by Eduardo R.C. Capulong, Michael A. Millemann, Sara Rankin, and Nantiya Ruan.

From the publisher’s online catalog:

In The New 1L, leading teachers in the field describe how, in the first year of legal education, they teach students to act, as well as think, like lawyers. In their courses, clients are central—not extraneous. Working under a lawyer’s supervision, students interview clients, conduct factual investigations, draft pleadings, and write memoranda and briefs. The authors argue that, in isolation, theory and practice are incomplete, and first-year educators must integrate the two. They discuss the benefits and challenges of this new 1L approach, and also provide a range of successful models for any teacher who wants to adapt this pedagogy to a first-year course.

The innovative courses the authors describe bring about collaborations between classroom instruction and legal research and writing (LRW) and create interactions with clinical teachers and lawyers. These collaborative teaching models are essential to the future success of legal education, the authors contend. These models include LRW courses that base assignments on actual legal work, core courses that add practice components to traditional theoretical instruction, courses adding skills instruction and actual client work to the 1L curriculum, and courses that invite 1L students to enroll in clinics.

Manage your sentence length

What’s a good average sentence length for legal writing?

I once asked a group of lawyers at a CLE seminar that question. “Thirteen words,” one lawyer volunteered. “Seven,” said another. Wow. Writing about legal matters with an average of seven words per sentence isn’t realistic, is it? That means for every sentence of ten words, you’ve got to write one of four words to bring the average to seven. That would be tough.

But the instinct is right. Steven Stark, author of Writing to Win, says the more complex the material, the shorter the sentences should be. So what’s a more realistic goal? The experts say between 20 and 25 words:

  • below 25—Wydick in Plain English for Lawyers
  • about 22—Enquist & Oates in Just Writing: Grammar, Punctuation, and Style for the Legal Writer
  • about 20—Garner in Legal Writing in Plain English

How do you know your average sentence length?

You can program Microsoft Word to tell you. In Word 2010 and 2013, go to File > Options > Proofing and look for “When correcting spelling and grammar in Word.” Now check the box for “Show readability statistics.”

You’ll also be required to check the box for “Check grammar with spelling.” If you dislike running a grammar-check every time you run a spell-check, go into the grammar settings and uncheck as many boxes as you like. You’re telling Word to stop checking for all those grammar items—it gets most of them wrong anyway. (For more on using grammar checker wisely, see Customize Word’s Grammar Checker from the October 2012 Austin Lawyer.)

With those settings, when you finish a spell-check you’ll see a display that includes the average sentence length. Of course, the tool isn’t perfect. If you have citations or headings in your text, Word will think those are sentences—short sentences—and your average sentence length will be artificially low. To work around this problem, select a paragraph or group of paragraphs without headings or citations and then run the spell-check; do it three times in different places. This will give you a sense of your average sentence length.

If your average sentence length is in the 30s, or even the high 20s, you’re taxing your readers. Do a thorough edit for concision and efficiency. If your average sentence length is in the teens, well done. You’re pleasing your readers. And remember, average sentence length doesn’t mean uniform sentence length. You should vary your sentence length. Write some short sentences and some longer ones.

How long is too long?

We lawyers have a reputation for long sentences. It’s probably not all our fault. After all, the subject matter of most legal writing lends itself to qualifications, modifiers, asides, and lists—so we might be forgiven. Yet I’m sure we can do better. Here’s a suggestion: Decide on a maximum sentence length and promise yourself you’ll cut any sentence that exceeds your maximum. For example, mine is 45. I’ve decided that when a single sentence I’ve written exceeds 45 words, it’s an automatic edit.

Of course, some gifted writers can create long sentences that are pleasant to read; they usually use long but perfectly parallel phrases in a series. Or they use lots of semicolons. It can work in literature and, occasionally, in law. But for most of us doing legal writing, long sentences are hard to read and hard to follow. So avoid over-long sentences.

In managing sentence length and avoiding over-long sentences, it’s not practical to count words while you’re typing. Instead, manage sentence length on the edit. As you read your writing, keep an eye out for any sentence that fills three or more lines of text or any sentence that just makes you tired. Use your cursor to select that sentence, and Word will tell you the word count at the bottom left of your screen. For me, if it’s more than 45, it’s an automatic edit.

So that’s the advice. For readable writing that doesn’t tax your readers, vary your sentence length, seek an average in the low 20s, and cut any sentence of 45 words or more.

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