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Tactical Skills To Improve Your Writing

It’s no secret that I am a fan (and friend) of Ross Guberman, author of Point Made: How To Write Like The Nation’s Top Advocates. As I state in my review, it is one of the best legal writing book I’ve read. I enjoy it particularly for its narrow focus on tactical techniques to improve one’s writing, along with numerous examples of such tactics from some of the nation’s best lawyers.

Guberman has also long had a website and blog, but they are updated infrequently. Yet in the past couple of days, Guberman has put up two excellent posts that I wanted to highlight. If you want to improve your writing, it’s worth your time to read these posts. Here they are, with some brief excerpts:

The Seven Writing Strategies of Highly Effective Trial Judges

Lighten Up: Replace Stale, Stodgy Language with Short, Fresh Words

So much of what makes for great style comes down to a micro-level struggle to find short, punchy language for long-winded, abstract thoughts. In the passage above, for instance, rather than “But the addendum Jackson admits using,” Goldgar could have written “However, the addendum Jackson admits using,” yet that would have dragged the sentence down. And elsewhere, he could have written “Additionally, the responsibilities of the attorney were not limited to those specified,” but instead he began with “Nor were the responsibilities of the attorney limited to those specified.” Light is right.

Throughout his opinion, in fact, I spot a love for crisp language and an aversion to the bureaucratic clichés that mar so much legal writing.

Here’s my Goldgar-gleaned ten-tip cheat sheet:

1.  After, not “subsequent to”

After the December 2010 show cause order suggested his conduct was sanctionable . . .

2.  Also, not “moreover” or “additionally”

The addendum also stated that it was “retroactive to cover . . .

3.  As for, not “with respect to” or “with regard to” or “regarding”

As for Jackson’s claimed lack of intent to mislead, the test under Rule 9011 is objective, not subjective.

4.  Even if, not “even assuming” or “assuming arguendo”

Even if Lanner had been knowledgeable on these subjects, moreover, and even if he had advised Jackson about the veracity of the fee applications . . .

5.  Here, not “in the instant case” or “in the present case”

The equitable considerations here point to a severe sanction.

(To avoid dragging the sentence down, put “here” near the verb as Goldgar does, not at the beginning of the sentence.)

Bridge to Somewhere: Better Flow for Busy Lawyers

Thurgood Marshall, Brief for Brown in Brown v. Board of Education:

While the State of Kansas has undoubted power to confer benefits or impose disabilities upon selected groups of citizens in the normal execution of governmental functions, it must conform to constitutional standards in the exercise of this authority. These standards may be generally characterized as a requirement that the state’s action be reasonable. Reasonableness in a constitutional sense is determined by examining the action of the state to discover whether the distinctions or restrictions in issue are in fact based upon real differences pertinent to a lawful legislative objective.

When the distinctions imposed are based upon race and color alone . . .

Marshall’s sentences, and not just the paragraphs, feature smooth, bridge-like transitions: “standard . . . standards,” “reasonable . . . reasonableness.”

Well worth your time to read. And add Guberman’s blog to your RSS feed.

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About Keith Lee

I'm the founder and editor of Associate's Mind. I like to write, talk, and think about law, professional development, technology, and whatever else floats my boat. I practice law in Birmingham, AL.

6 comments

  1. I try not to use clunky language. The first time I read through something I write, how much gets cut down still surprises me.

  2. I find “tips” somewhat disturbing in that they tend to reflect the tipster’s bias more than the point of writing. There is only one purpose here: to be more persuasive. Clarity is almost always better than lack of it.

    But then jurisprudence kicks in, and you need to consider what works best with your particular audience. After all, the only person whose opinion matters is the one making the decision. Many judges prefer more familiar expressions, and that includes language that some of the writing gurus despise. It may be unwieldly, but it’s what the judge understands.

    Never forget the point of legal writing. It’s not to be a great writer, but to win.

    • Completely agreed. We have had this conversation before, and I feel as though it is summed up in my mind with the phrase “Know your audience.” If you are writing for a judge, it is important to know their opinions, likes, dislikes, etc. as best as one can. If a judge is older or prefers traditional phrases, then by all means the appropriate thing to do is write in the style the judge prefers – modern/clean writing be damned.

      • Yes, we have discussed this before. And yet, I feel this weird tingling every time someone posts about how lawyers should write that ignores the jurisprudential factor in favor of the “let’s be modern” view to say it again. Because, you know, it’s good to remember why we do this.

  3. My experience is that even dreadful writers appreciate good writing.A friend and former adversary who is now a judge is one of the worst writers I know–redundant, repetitive, repulsive, trite legalese–yet he frequently compliments me on my writing.

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