Effective legal writing cuts through the noise and legalese, avoids long descriptions and overworked narratives, and gets to the point. It grabs the reader’s attention and holds onto it. Lawyers have a reputation for being verbose, using complexords and Latin phrases, and forcing the reader to work harder than any reader should. Reading should not be an Olympic sport. It should come with great ease – the words should float off the page providing the exact meaning intended by the author and drawing a direct line between the facts and the law and the conclusions to draw from them. There should be no mystery. No guessing. Certainly no scratching of the head to determine the meaning or intent. It should be as clear as a book written for a child – direct, to the point, plain words, active verbs, descriptive nouns, light on adjectives and adverbs, short sentences. By saying this, I am not suggesting we should treat our readers as children or perceive them as such. What I am saying is that our readers deserve simplicity. The hardest books to write often have the fewest words. Poetry is so powerful because it says so much so briefly. Effective legal writing can be boiled down to fewer words that say more. That’s it.
Whenever tackling a writing project, whether a motion, brief or letter, brainstorm what you want to say. Spend more time thinking and less time writing. Often we just start clacking away at the keyboard, with a general sense of what we want to say, but without a fully developed plan or goal. That comes across in the writing. That’s why taking a pen and paper and brainstorming, and doodling, and letting your right brain get involved, all help to create work product that is not only clear and thought through, but also creative and imaginative. It’s not only direct but reflective and possibly even clever. So think through and reduce to writing an outline upon which you’ll build.
Once you have an outline, start with the end. How do you want to conclude? And then go to the beginning. How do you want to start with the conclusion in mind? Writing anything persuasive starts with saying what you plan on saying, then saying it and then saying what you said. That’s what we expect as readers. What’s your point? That’s the beginning. How do you support your point? That’s the middle. Why does your point win the day? That’s the end. The simpler you can keep your writing and hold your reader’s hand from one step to the next to reach the point where she agrees with you – that’s the endgame in writing. You want your reader to agree with your conclusion and you need to show them why they should. If the only conclusion they can reach is yours, then you know you’ve addressed all the issues, raised all the relevant facts and law, and have tied everything together so the reader reaches your destination.
Next, you must edit. Reduce paragraphs to sentences, sentences into clauses, clauses into phrases and phrases into words. Any first draft can be reduced by at least 20 percent. By cutting it to its essence you gain clarity. Fewer, not more words, make better points. Make sure passive verbs are replaced with active ones, replace adverbs with stronger verbs and adjectives with more precise nouns. Sentences should never be more than a few lines. You should never use a word your reader needs to look up. You’re not showing off. You’re communicating.
Once you’re done editing, put your draft down. Walk down the hall. Get some coffee. Browse the internet. Get away from the draft for a little while and give it some distance. Once you’ve cleared your head, review it again, and possibly again. Then you’re finished. You’ve said what you wanted to say and anyone who reads it will get your point immediately and will reach the same conclusion you do by the time they have finished reading it.
And do not only apply this approach to writing only to your legal writing. Whether you write to get published, or you write letters to friends and loved ones, or write for organisations, always keep the reader at the forefront and always serve his or her interests, not yours.