Over-simplified writing advice, 4

Part 4 of 4

My books: Legal Writing Nerd: Be One, Plain Legal Writing: Do It

I recently heard a speaker criticize the following advice as “oversimplified”:

“Write short sentences.”

The speaker characterized it as “common writing advice.” I think this supposedly common advice is a straw target—a target that legal-writing teachers and experts don’t actually advise and that the speaker set up to be easily knocked down. Here’s the my own take.

The best advice is to aim for an average sentence length in the low 20s. Here’s what experts say about average sentence length in legal writing:

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

That’s average. Some sentences would be longer, some shorter. I haven’t found any experts advising a maximum sentence length, but for me, it’s 45 words. Anything longer risks losing the reader.

Other than that, the experts recommend varying your sentence length:

  • You want some longer sentences and some shorter ones.1
  • Varying your sentence lengths is generally a good idea.2
  • Keep the sentences shorter to create a sense of movement and make them easy to read, but vary length to avoid monotony.3

The occasional very short sentence (3 to 7 words) stands out and creates emphasis. The occasional long sentence—probably in a strict, parallel, three-part series—is memorable.

That’s the real advice. No one actually says “Write short sentences” without further clarification or explanation.

My books: Legal Writing Nerd: Be One, Plain Legal Writing: Do It

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1. Bryan A. Garner, LawProse Lesson #269: Average sentence length.

2. Joseph Regalia, The Art of Legal Writing: The Sentence, Appellate Advocacy Blog (May 19, 2018).

3. Ellie Margolis, 10 top tips for legal writing, Before the Bar (Nov. 7, 2019).