Thursday, February 22, 2018

Improve Your Writing in the Time it Takes to Read This

“It is perfectly okay to write garbage—as long as you edit brilliantly.” – C. J. Cherryh

Many people think that litigation involves a Perry-Mason cross examination or Jack Nicholson losing it on the stand.  We love courtroom dramas too but the truth is, if you can handle it, is that most commercial cases resolve after a judge decides a client’s case based on written submissions.  This means that in most cases we are professional writers, presenting our clients’ cases not in the courtroom but through written briefs.

Although legal writing can be technical, good writing is good writing.  The same techniques we use to persuade judges are techniques our clients and friends can use to persuade their team, their boss, their board and their clients.  Here are 5 simple tips that will improve your writing right now.

Outline Everything

We outline every brief before we put pen to paper.  In fact, we outline almost everything.  Letters, substantive emails, even this blog post gets outlined.  Your outline does not have to be long.  The outline for this post is scribbled on the back of a magazine. 

The outline does more than organize your writing, it organizes your thought process.  There have been a number of times when we were headed in one direction only to go another after playing with an outline for an hour.  Bad writing is often a result of fuzzy thinking.  If you skip your outline, it will take you twice as long to straighten yourself out.

The more detailed your outline the more detailed your thinking.  Try to make the subject headings in your outline as detailed as possible.  Use a declarative sentence if possible.  Even if you decide not to create separate sections in your piece, using headings in an outline will help to keep you on track.

Learn to Stop Worrying and Embrace the Ugly First Draft

Our best finished product usually starts with an ugly, near stream-of-consciousness, first draft.  Do not even consider rewriting sentences or correcting grammar this round.  We will sometimes simply close our eyes while typing out the first draft to avoid the temptation.  It also has the added benefit of not having to look at the scary empty white space on the page.  Some of us will dictate a first draft. 
The point is to let your ideas flow unimpeded.  Don’t worry about missing punctuation, words or even sentences.  Once you grind out that ugly first draft, put it down for the day without editing or refinement.

When you pick it up again is when writing starts to get more fun.  You can start filling the inevitable gaps, improving flow and adding pithy one liners where appropriate.  If you try to skip the ugly first draft, it never turns out as well.

Stop Using Passive Voice

We have all heard this before but it is true.  If you are not sure whether you are writing in the passive voice ask yourself, “who is the actor in this sentence?”  For example, “plaintiff’s motion should be dismissed.”  Who should be doing the dismissing?  You can’t tell from this sentence and so know it is in the passive voice.  The active voice doesn’t hide the actor – “the judge should dismiss plaintiff’s motion” – and it makes for better writing.  It sounds better and provides more information.

If you find yourself using the passive voice often, consider whether you have an issue with your writing or your thinking.  When we find ourselves using the passive voice, it is often because we do not fully understand our topic and are using the passive voice as a crutch.  Who is the actor in your sentence?  If you do not know, you may need to clean up your thinking.

Please, No Corporate Speak, Made Up Words or Weblish

Corporate speak, made up words and “weblish” continue to work their way into our lexicon.  They do not have a place in your writing.  If you use corporate speak, your reader may not understand you.  Using the word “solution” to describe a product (often software) is a good example.  “We sold the customer a solution that will help them extract more useful information from their database.”  Rather than use a not so subliminal marketing tool, just describe what you sold.  If you use made up words (“I would guestimate that…”), you risk looking like someone who does not have the command of the English language needed to express themselves.  If you use weblish, you sound like a computer (“I don’t have the bandwidth for that…”).

You can usually avoid these issues by asking yourself a few questions.  If I used this term with a family member who knows nothing about my business, would they understand me?  If I looked in a dictionary, would this word appear?  Was this word or term in existence in 1970? If the answer to any of those questions is “no”, then keep it off the page.  

Lose the Adverbs Unless They Really Change the Meaning of Sentence

We are habitual offenders of this rule and often slash “-ly” words from our first drafts.  Overuse of adverbs tends to make your writing wimpy and bloated.  Use them sparingly and only when they change the meaning of a sentence.

The first sentence of this section is a good example.  Removing the adverbs “habitual” and “often” does not change the meaning of the sentence and removing it makes for a stronger sentence: “We are offenders of this rule and slash ‘-ly’ words…”

You can also reduce the tendency to overuse adverbs by using more descriptive verbs.  Rather than saying “he shook my hand very firmly,” you could say “he crushed my hand.”  Using a stronger verb allows you to remove the adverb “firmly.”


Good writing takes time but little changes can have an immediate impact.  Try these the next time you have a scary blank page in front of you.

No comments:

Post a Comment