What advice would you give a new lawyer about legal writing?
I’ll be writing and presenting on this question in February, and I’d appreciate your views.
I think of things like “develop good editing habits,” “try to get drafts done early,” and “read a reference book once in a while.” But I’d like to hear from practicing lawyers.
Regular readers know that I keep comments disabled because I get thousands of spam comments. But the comments are open for this.
A period walks into a bar and comes to a full stop.
A semicolon walks into a bar; almost no one recognizes it.
A question mark walks into a bar?
Two quotation marks “walk” into a bar.
An apostrophe mistakenly walks into it’s own bar, but the apostrophe meant to go to another owners bar.
A comma splice walks into a bar, it orders a drink and then leaves.
Two independent clauses walk into a bar, however they fail to get properly separated and run on into each other.
A dangling modifier walks into a bar. After finishing a drink, the bartender asks it to leave.
Because a fragment walked into a bar.
An ellipsis walks into a bar and …
An infinitive walks into a bar and decides to quickly split.
A non-restrictive clause walks into a bar which was a mistake.
A bar is a place a preposition can walk into.
A spell-checker woks in to a bar.
A synonym strolls into a tavern.
An exclamation mark skips into a bar!
A bar was visited by the passive voice.
“The idea that there are exactly two approaches to usage—all the traditional rules must be followed or else anything goes—is the sticklers’ founding myth. The first step in mastering usage is to understand why this myth is wrong.”
Steven Pinker, The Sense of Style 188 (2014).
I’m pleased to recommend my book, which promotes plain writing in documents intended for nonlawyers.
Sold by the ABA. Makes a great gift. Get it here.
Omit needless details
If a detail isn’t relevant or useful, omit it. In legal writing, needless details often appear as names and dates.
Larding a statement of facts with dates annoys some readers, including judges: “Most dates are clutter,” says Judge Mark Painter in his book The Legal Writer. And names can be clutter, too, if the people named aren’t important or won’t be mentioned again.
Using a specific name or date tells the reader it’s important; often it’s not. Here’s an example with a date and three full names:
- On April 4, 2008, Isam Yasar alleged that his supervisor, Russell Dunagan, told him that if Yasar continued to complain, Dunagan would have to discipline and possibly terminate a fellow Muslim and Yasar’s co-worker, James Lira.
As you edit this sentence, think about the story you’re telling and the points you’ll argue. If April 4 isn’t important and won’t appear again, omit it. As for the names, let’s imagine that Isam Yasar and James Lira are important characters you’ll mention several times. Leave them alone. But let’s imagine that Russell Dunagan is not important, so you can call him the supervisor.
- Isam Yasar alleged that his supervisor told him that if Yasar continued to complain, the supervisor would have to discipline and possibly terminate a fellow Muslim and Yasar’s co-worker, James Lira.
Same content, but now it’s down from 35 words to 30. Concision.
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