Unfortunately, most lawyers are lousy writers. Considering that the primary form of communication and work among and between lawyers is writing, one would think that they would be better at it. But they’re not. And polishing and honing one’s writings skills is fairly low on the list of priorities for lawyers (especially since they believe they are already good writers).
The problem likely starts in law school. Law students, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, are thrown into case law from the 19th century. They read bad or anachronistic legal writing over and over again. Whatever creative or good writing habits they had before law school are washed away by a desire to conform with “good” legal writing. Which often means long, multiple clause sentences strewn with Latin and forsooths. Densely packed paragraphs that meander around meaning and only tangentially make a point.
Trying to fix all of one’s writing problems in one go is unlikely to succeed. If you are a level 3 writer, it’s unrealistic to immediately jump to a level 10 writer. Better to take small, concrete steps and smartly grow your writing skills in small increments. One of the easiest, and most concrete ways to more effectively communicate through writing is to ensure that your paragraphs have topic sentences.
The topic sentence is a prescriptive grammatical term to describe the sentence in an expository paragraph which summarizes the main idea of that paragraph. It is usually the first sentence in a paragraph. The topic sentence acts as a kind of summary, and offers the reader an insightful view of the writer’s main ideas for the following paragraph. More than just being a mere summary, however, a topic sentence often provides a claim or an insight directly or indirectly related to the thesis. It adds cohesion to a paper and helps organize ideas both within the paragraph and the whole body of work at large.
A topic sentence functions as a sort of guidepost for readers. It helps them understand where the paragraph is going and relates to the body of the work as a whole. For example, look back at the three paragraphs of this post and their first sentences:
- Unfortunately, most lawyers are lousy writers.
- The problem likely starts in law school.
- Trying to fix all of one’s writing problems in one go is unlikely to succeed.
Taken all on their own, they lay out the overarching idea behind this entire post, and lead into the conclusion: that topic sentences are a good first step in improving one’s writing. Pay attention the next time you feel as though you are reading a well written motion or brief. More than likely there are topic sentence sign posts guiding you to a conclusion.