Appellate Advocacy Blog

Editor: Tessa L. Dysart
The University of Arizona
James E. Rogers College of Law

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Big ideas in small packages: the power of thesis sentences to distill what matters


What’s the most important writing skill? Perhaps you might say “conciseness”? “Clarity”? Yawn. Of course those are fine, but as we've discussed in previous posts, challenging yourself with generic goals like "write concisely" won't make much real difference in your everyday writing habits. So let us offer another top writing skill (one you can start practicing today): distilling complex points into sentence-length thesis statements.  

Distilling complex ideas down into small packages may be the most powerful, effective arrow in your quiver. If you want to hone a skill that will produce big results—this is it. Indeed, you briefly learned how to distill ideas into short sentences in college. You included that magical thesis sentence—the main point of your paper—every time you wrote about the history of Prussia.  

But this concept of a thesis sentence is so much more, especially for us legal writers; it’s the concept of distilling down arguments or ideas into a small package that can be swallowed in a single gulp. Ernest Hemingway knew how to do it: "For sale: Baby shoes, never worn." A lot of ideas are packed into these six words. History. Dread. Regret.  

And look at how much Judge Carnes packs into a short line, albeit broken up with some periods: “A woman of childbearing age was hired as a teacher at a small Christian school. Then she got pregnant, married, and fired. In that order.” We know the entire story (or at least what matters).  

Our newly-benched Justice Gorsuch knows how to pack a lot into one sentence, too: "Our story starts with two provisions buried in our immigration laws." This inauspicious sentence actually divulges a lot, including the obscurity of the provisions and that two separate provisions matter.  

Distilling down big ideas into short sentences is a powerful move anywhere in your document—like the first and last line of a section. But to get the most out of this move, try applying it to perhaps the most pivotal part of your writing—the paragraph. The best writers swear by the power of the paragraph. As Paul Auster said: "a paragraph . . . is a bit like a line in a poem. It has its own shape, its own music, its own integrity." So what sentence could be more important to nail than the first sentence of your paragraphs? 

To leverage the power of the thesis in your paragraphs, there are a few lessons we can learn from the best writers.  

First, try to encapsulate the real point of your paragraphs—their thesis—in the first sentence. This has tons of benefits for you: it ensures even a skimming reader will take away your main points, and it will frame the key ideas for your reader as they read the rest of each paragraph.  

Look at how this Justice gets to the heart of her paragraph with the first sentence. You don't even need to keep going to get the point:  

"To begin, however, we reject any analogy between the NLRA—which is about process—and Title VII—which is about substance."  

You could imagine a blander topic sentence:

"To begin, however, we reject any analogy between the NLRA and Title VII" 

Or even worse, a first sentence that dives right into the details: 

"In Park v. Hoffman, the court explained that the "procedures are many" when navigating the NLRA..."

Second, style is paramount in your thesis sentences. Your reader may not make it past the first sentence, and their impression of your credibility, paragraph to paragraph, is set by the first sentence. So spend extra time getting that first sentence just right.

"Transferring the job of saying what the law is from the judiciary to the executive unsurprisingly invites the very sort of due process and equal protection concerns the framers knew would arise if the political branches intruded on judicial functions." Justice Gorsuch 

The best thesis sentences contain words or phrases that will stick with your reader like a slogan. This means picking particular words or phrases that will be hard to forget.

"Plaintiffs are not suing about confidentiality, what they want is secrecy." 

Other than using catchy words or rhetorical devices, you can also make concepts stick by including key facts: 

"The State urges us to follow Seifert and hold that a BB gun is a firearm under" the statute.  

Often you need to use the first sentence of your paragraph to help make a smooth transition from the prior paragraph. Try to incorporate the transition into your thesis sentence and still include the key content; if that is impossible, do a quick transition sentence followed by your real thesis sentence: 

"But those due process and equal protection concerns that animated our holding in De Niz Robles also apply to this case." This thesis sentence transitions and sums up the key point, all in one.  

Don't get caught up on the thesis sentence being a single sentence. If you need a couple short sentences to sum up your paragraph before diving in, so be it. Here is a three-sentence thesis to a long paragraph by Justice Gorsuch:

"That judicial declaration of what the law is turned out to be anything but the last word. Not because the Supreme Court disagreed. But because in 2007 the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) issued In re Briones, 24 I. & N. Dec. 355 (BIA 2007)."  

Try to construct thesis sentences that will frame how your reader sees the rest of the paragraph's content. Be subtle, but the more you can prime your reader the deeper your points will penetrate. Take this example, where a judge creates the lens he hopes the reader will use when reading the rest of the paragraph: 

"Conversely, Haywood argues that we should reconsider our holding in Seifert because the definition of 'firearm' applied in Seifert and by the court of appeals does not take into account the word's plain and ordinary meaning." 

And you can use your thesis sentence to roadmap points if you have more than one in a paragraph: 

"Courts in this district have rejected the waiver theory--and they have rejected the estoppel theory, too" 

You can also use this thesis concept to write thesis paragraphs for sections, too. Look how Justice Kagan sums up the following section in a short, idea-packed paragraph:   

“But . . . the Government takes its observation about discretion too far. Yes, the statute provides the EEOC with wide latitude over the conciliation process, and that feature becomes significant when we turn to defining the proper scope of judicial review. But no, Congress has not left everything to the Commission." Justice Kagan 

Practice taking big ideas and wrapping them in neat little packages—the first sentences of your paragraphs. You can start practicing this skill today. Simply take a piece you're working on and go through, paragraph by paragraph, converting the first sentence of each into an idea-packed thesis. Your readers will thank you.  

Joe Regalia is a law professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, William S. Boyd School of Law and regularly leads workshops training legal writing and technology. The views he expresses here are solely his own and not intended to be legal advice. Check out his other articles and writing tips here

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Judge Ed Carnes of the 11th Circuit (the 11th Circuit has two judges with the last name "Carnes") was even more pithy that your quotation revealed. I think a bit more needs to be published.
A woman of childbearing age was hired as a teacher at a small Christian school. Then she got pregnant, married, and fired. In that order. Then she filed a lawsuit. She lost on summary judgment. This is her appeal.

Hamilton v. Southland Christian Sch., Inc., 680 F.3d 1316, 1317 (11th Cir. 2012)

Posted by: John Hightower | May 31, 2018 8:54:30 AM

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