Unfortunately, most lawyers are lousy writers. That might seem counter-intuitive – the primary form of communication and work between lawyers is writing. But surveys and experts agree – lawyers just aren’t that good at it. And polishing and honing 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. Naive and impressionable law students 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.
Adopting and using topic sentences is an easy step to improving your writing. 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..
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.
As an example, look back at the first four 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.
- Adopting and using topic sentences is an easy step to improving your writing.
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 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.
If you want to talk about improving your legal writing with like minded folks, well, you know what I’m going to suggest.