By Zeinab Bailoun • February 06, 2017•Writers in Residence
A practicing lawyer, to be successfully persuasive, must write well. Law schools across the United States - and across the world - drill this into their students' heads, and attempt to prepare and train them adequately for a career filled with briefs, memos, and other forms of written communication. Most schools include a required Legal Writing class in the curriculum for first-year students.
Plain English for Lawyers, by Richard C. Wydick, is a solid introduction to the basics of legal writing. The tips Wydick offers in this short guide, however, are invaluable for almost any writer. Reminiscent of The Elements of Style - the classic style manual referenced by generations of English-language writers and students - Wydick's guide offers many of the same tips, focusing instead on the problems legal writers have long faced. He describes these problems at the very beginning of the text:
We lawyers do not write plain English. We use eight words to say what could be said in two... Seeking to be precise, we become redundant. Seeking to be cautious, we become verbose... The result is a writing style that has, according to one critic, four outstanding characteristics. It is "(1) wordy, (2) unclear, (3) pompous, and (4) dull." (Wydick 3)
Wydick sets out to help lawyers and legal writers write "in plain English." (Wydick 5) Here are five of the most useful tips he offers in pursuit of that goal.
- Omit surplus words. Your writing will include working words, which "carry the meaning of the sentence," and glue words, such as the, a, was, or of. The proportion of glue words in a sentence should not be too high. If it is, you may need to rearrange the wording. For example, instead of writing, "for the reason that," use the word "because."
- Avoid word-wasting idioms. Instead of writing, "the fact that he was born," write, "his birth."
- Prefer the active voice. Why say, "A complaint was filed by the union," when you can say, "The union filed a complaint"? Ensure that the subject of the sentence does the acting. This does two things: it (1) shortens the sentence and (2) expresses the meaning more powerfully.
- Use short sentences. Wydick offers two bits of advice in this regard, emphasizing that these are only guidelines and should not be applied across the board. First, "[in] most sentences, put only one main thought." Second, "[keep] the average sentence length below 25 words."
- When necessary, make a list. This is best applied when you have "a cluster of conditions, or exceptions, or other closely related ideas." Trying to fit the different conditions in a sentence or two can become confusing very quickly. Instead, make a list, and ensure that the items in the list are parallel in both substance and grammar.
Wydick quotes Mark Twain in the book's section on writing short sentences. Twain also recommends brief sentences, as a general rule, before going on to explain:
At times [the writer] may indulge himself with a long one, but he will make sure there are no folds in it, no vaguenesses, no parenthetical interruptions of its view as a whole; when he has done with it, it won't be a sea-serpent with half of its arches under the water; it will be a torch-light procession.