Sunday, December 29, 2019
Tips to Immediately Improve Your Writing Skills
Developing excellent writing skills requires time, practice, and repetition. As Justice Antonin Scalia once stated, “there is an immense difference between writing and good writing,” and “it takes time and sweat to convert the former into the latter.” Indeed, developing excellent writing skills is a lifelong process; those who write effectively enhance the persuasive value of their arguments and maximize their chances of succeeding on the merits. Below are tips that will enable attorneys to quickly and significantly improve the quality of their writing.
1. Eliminate the B.S.
Be sure to eliminate unnecessary words. These words add no persuasive value to your argument and they will likely distract or annoy the reader. Thus, you should eliminate words such as “very,” “entirely,” “only,” “really,” and “actually.”
Also, avoid adverbs, adjectives, and over-the-top language. These words do not enhance the quality of your writing or the strength of your argument. For example, do not say “The defendant ran extremely fast in the store.” Say, “The defendant sprinted into the store.”
2. Outline your argument
Before drafting a brief, outline your arguments, including the relevant facts that support those arguments. Doing so will enable you to assess whether the brief is organized effectively, flows well, and includes the relevant facts and legal principles.
3. Write shorter paragraphs and focus on only one point
When drafting a legal document, such as a memorandum or brief, you should draft short paragraphs (e.g., three to five sentences in length). Long paragraphs can distract the reader and thus fail to keep the reader engaged. Indeed, imagine if you were reading a brief and on every page, you encountered a long paragraph that occupied the entire page. Would you want to keep reading?
Additionally, only discuss one point (or element of a legal argument) in a paragraph, and always begin a paragraph with a topic sentence. Thus, do not include multiple legal arguments (or standards) in a single paragraph because it will disrupt the flow and organization of your argument.
Relatedly, avoid block quotes unless absolutely necessary. Some attorneys reserve block quotes for information that they consider exceedingly persuasive or relevant. However, some judges do not read block quotes, which means that they will skip the passages that you consider most important.
4. Use headings and subheadings
Heading and subheadings enhance the flow and organization of your argument. For example, the four elements of negligence are: (1) duty; (2) breach of duty; (3) direct and proximate causation; and (4) damages. Thus, when drafting, for example, a memorandum, you can organize your analysis as follows:
B. Breach of Duty
1. Direct Causation
2. Proximate Causation
When organized in this manner, your memorandum will flow effectively and the reader will easily follow the logic and flow of your analysis.
5. Write shorter sentences
Shorter sentences engage the reader and keep the reader’s attention. Longer sentences do the opposite. Furthermore, short and direct sentences can effectively emphasize a particularly favorable fact or legal principle. Thus, as a general rule, avoid sentences that are over twenty-five words.
6. Vary sentence length
Varying the length of your sentences keeps the reader’s attention. If your brief consists of excessively long sentences, the reader will likely become bored. And if you include only short sentences, your writing will be choppy and lack flow. Ultimately, therefore, to ensure that your brief flows effectively (and to maximize its persuasive value), vary the length of your sentences.
7. Use transition words to enhance the flow of your document
To ensure that your arguments flow effectively, use transition words such as “Furthermore,” “Moreover,” “Additionally,” and “Also.” Doing so enhances the flow and organization of your argument.
8. Repeatedly re-write and edit your brief, and do so on paper, not a computer
Studies have shown that writers who edit and proofread their work on paper identify more mistakes than those who edit and proofread on a computer.
9. Don’t change tenses
Be sure to write your sentences in the same tense. Consider the following example:
The plaintiff walked out of the door and the defendant strikes the plaintiff, causing severe injuries.
Although there may be circumstances when changing tenses is appropriate, you should, as a general rule, maintain the same tense.
10. Be simple and straightforward
When writing any document, you must consider the audience to whom it is directed. Indeed, the tone, complexity, and style of your writing may change depending on, for example, whether it is directed to a client or court. Regardless of your audience, however, you should always strive to draft legal arguments in a simple, straightforward, and easy-to-understand manner. After all, would you want to read a brief that is riddled with ‘SAT’ or esoteric words, and Latin? Of course not.
11. Use Grammarly or another reputable editing service
Using a reputable editing service, such as Grammarly, can ensure that you identify most, if not all, of the spelling and grammatical errors in your document.
12. Purchase books that serve as quick and effective reference tools
Be sure to consult references that will assist you in adhering to grammar and style rules. Books such as The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, or the Texas Manual of Style, are easily accessible and effective references to ensure that your writing is free of grammatical or stylistic mistakes.
13. Read excellent writing
One of the best ways to become an excellent writer is to read excellent writing. The website below, for example, contains briefs written by the Solicitor General of the United States: https://www.justice.gov/osg/supreme-court-briefs.
 Edward A. Adams, Scalia: Legal Writing Doesn’t Exist (Aug. 9, 2008), available at: http://www.abajournal.com/news/article/scalia_legal_writing_doesnt_exist.
I did not reach this article because I question the qualifications of anyone splitting an infinitive in a title. Some authorities may approve split infinitives but no writer gains from a split infinitive.
Posted by: Thomas F. McDow | Jan 10, 2020 3:15:25 PM