Saturday, July 24, 2021
The writing process consists of three phases: (1) the first draft; (2) the rewriting stage; and (3) the line and copy edit. This article focuses on line and copy editing, which involves reviewing your writing for, among other things, conciseness, clarity, word choice, repetition, and persuasive value. Below are tips to ensure that you can line and copy edit effectively for briefs and other legal documents.
1. Make your sentences concise
Long and wordy sentences are the enemies of effective and persuasive writing. Focus on getting to the point in as few words as possible. Use simple words. Be clear and straightforward. Consider this example:
The issue in this case is whether the Second Amendment protects an individual right to bear arms. We contend that it does.
This sentence is far too wordy. Instead of the above statement, simply say:
The Second Amendment protects an individual right to bear arms.
Likewise, consider this example:
The issue to be decided by the court is whether the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which unquestionably and unmistakably protects substantive liberty interests pursuant to the substantive due process doctrine, encompasses within its reach the fundamental and thus basic right to terminate a pregnancy. The answer is certainly yes.
Wow. What an awful, fifty-two word sentence. Instead of this nonsense, simply say:
The Fourteenth Amendment’s liberty guarantee supports a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy.
That sentence is thirteen words, and it says the same thing.
Remember that judges can easily recognize bad writing, and the failure to communicate concisely is a classic sign of bad writing.
2. Focus on coherence and flow
Make sure that your paragraphs are coherent and flow effectively. In so doing, remember that paragraphs should never occupy an entire page. They should begin with a concise sentence and focus on a single point, such as an element of a cause of action. Consider, for example, a negligence lawsuit, which requires a plaintiff to show that a defendant: (1) owed a duty; (2) breached that duty; (3) directly and proximately caused injury; and (4) caused legally compensable damages. With this in mind, consider the following statement:
The defendant was negligent in treating the plaintiff’s back injury. The defendant, as a doctor and certified surgeon specializing in back injuries, owed a duty to the plaintiff to exercise a degree of care that was consistent with doctors of similar quality and experience. But the defendant breached this duty when he failed to operate on the correct area of the plaintiff’s spine. And this breach was contrary to and inconsistent with the conduct of similarly situated professionals in the medical industry. Moreover, the defendant’s conduct was the direct and proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injury. First, but for the defendant’s conduct, the plaintiff would never have suffered any injuries whatsoever. Second, the defendant’s conduct proximately caused the plaintiff’s injuries. Most importantly, the plaintiff suffered legally compensable injuries that should result in a verdict in plaintiff’s favor.
This paragraph is utter nonsense. It includes all four elements of negligence in a single paragraph without even attempting to explain in sufficient depth why the plaintiff’s case satisfies these elements. The better approach is to discuss each element in four separate and concise paragraphs.
3. Keep the reader’s attention
When does writing fail to keep the reader’s attention? When you write long sentences. When you write long paragraphs. When you use fancy or esoteric words. When you repeat yourself. When you tell, but don’t show. When your writing is simply boring. Consider the following example:
The defendant assaulted and severely injured the plaintiff in a most invidious and insidious manner. To be clear, the defendant assaulted the plaintiff in a most egregious manner because the plaintiff trusted the defendant and because the defendant represented to the plaintiff that he was a trusted friend and because the defendant told the plaintiff that he would always be a loyal and trusted friend, which is a representation upon which the plaintiff relief and did so to his detriment, as the complaint alleges. Also, the duplicitous behavior of the defendant showed that his purported loyalty was evanescent in nature and execrable in design.
This paragraph is worse than the Friday the 13th movies. Instead of this ridiculous statement, begin with a powerful opening sentence. Use short sentences. Include specific and vivid details that tell a compelling story and that engage the reader logically and emotionally.
4. Eliminate filler words
Sentences should include only necessary and purposeful words. As such, eliminate words like “just,” “very,” and “really.” Consider the following example:
My settlement offer should really be considered by your client.
Your client should consider my settlement offer.
The second example eliminates the filler words. It gets to the point quickly and directly.
5. Don’t repeat words
If you repeat words, it suggests that you didn’t take the time to edit your brief and it makes your writing seem contrived. Consider the following example:
The defendant’s conduct exacerbated the plaintiff’s injuries. These injuries were severe and, due to being exacerbated by the defendant’s conduct, continue to affect the plaintiff’s health. Indeed, the defendant’s conduct, which as stated above, exacerbated the plaintiff’s injuries, is negligent as a matter of law.
Unfortunately, instead of focusing on the substance of your argument, the reader is likely to wonder why you used the word “exacerbate” three times. To avoid this problem, get a thesaurus.
6. Don’t suggest unintended meanings or biases
Your word choice is the vehicle by which you convey meaning. Thus, be careful not to use words that may imply that you harbor prejudices or biases. Consider the following example:
The defendant was mentally retarded and should be held incompetent to stand trial.
Yeah, that’s not good. Instead, say:
The defendant was intellectually disabled and should be held incompetent to stand trial.
Remember to always write with sensitivity and objectivity. If your writing reveals underlying prejudices or biases, you – and your argument – will lack credibility.
7. Avoid words that convey uncertainty or equivocation
Your writing should be powerful and unequivocal because it shows that you believe in your argument. For example, don’t say this:
The court’s decision seems to be based on reasoning that is inconsistent with precedent.
Whatever. Imagine if a man proposed marriage to a woman, and the woman said in response, “I think so,” or “This seems like what I want.” They probably wouldn’t be tying the knot anytime soon – or ever. Instead, say:
The court’s decision is based on reasoning that is inconsistent with precedent.
The latter sentence is direct and declarative, and thus more persuasive.
8. Eliminate cliches
When you include cliches in your writing, it suggests that you are unoriginal and that you didn’t spend much time revising and perfecting your work product. For example, don’t say this:
My client, a professional boxer, wasn’t going to quit the fight until, as they say, “the fat lady sings.”
That sentence is terrible. Instead, say:
My client is a professional boxer who refused to quit and fought with his heart for every round of the fight.
This statement might make the reader envision the Rocky movies. It might also demonstrate that you are thinking for yourself and not relying on stale and tired phrases to support your argument. When you do that, your sentences will be original, relatable, and memorable.
9. Know what your words mean
Don’t use words that you misunderstand or don’t understand. Consider this example:
The law’s affects will suppress citizens’ First Amendment rights.
Don’t make such a foolish mistake. Instead, say:
The law’s effects will suppress citizens’ First Amendment rights.
And be sure not to reveal that you simply don’t understand the meaning of a word. Consider this example:
The invidious weather caused the plane crash.
The inclement weather caused the plane crash.
The first sentence would make the reader question the writer’s credibility – for good reason.
10. Lose the adverbs
Great attorneys know how to use the facts and the law to craft a compelling story that shows, not tells, a court why it should rule in their favor. To that end, they minimize, if not eliminate, adverbs. Indeed, adverbs describe what happened, but they don’t capture the moment. Consider the following examples:
The party was extremely loud.
The party was deafening.
The defendant was extraordinarily tired.
The defendant was exhausted.
The difference should be obvious: “deafening” is more powerful than “extremely loud,” and “exhausted” is more powerful than “extraordinarily tired.”
11. Lose the adjectives
Like adverbs, adjectives describe what happened, but they don’t capture the moment. Consider the following example:
The plaintiff’s journey to seek justice for her deceased daughter in this court has been really long and arduous.
Who cares? Law school exams are long and arduous. The bar exam is long and arduous. Relationships are long and arduous. And one’s belief in what is “long and arduous” is subjective. Put simply, nothing in the above statement connects with the reader in a relatable and compelling manner. Consider this example:
The plaintiff has waited patiently for three years, seven months, and twenty-eight days to obtain justice for her deceased daughter.
The second example is more powerful because it includes specific details. In so doing, it more effectively places the reader in the plaintiff’s shoes and enables the reader to relate to the plaintiff’s struggle.
12. Think differently about active versus passive voice
The conventional wisdom is that writers should use the active voice and avoid the passive voice. That’s not always true. You should use the passive voice, for example, when de-emphasizing unfavorable facts.
Consider a case in which your client made allegedly defamatory statements about a public official, but contended that he or she believed those statements were true. Which of the following statements would you prefer?
The defendant admittedly made potentially defamatory statements about the plaintiff, but he contends that they are true.
The alleged defamatory statements, which were made by the defendant, are true.
The second example is better because it de-emphasizes the unfavorable fact, namely, that the defendant made the statements, and it maintains the focus on the argument that the statements were true.
12. Good judgment leads to good writing
Legal writing is not a mechanical task in which you robotically apply a set of techniques to create a persuasive argument. Rather, you have to exercise good judgment – and common sense – when drafting briefs or other legal documents. This includes, but is not limited to, choosing specific words that enhance your brief’s persuasive value, varying the length of your sentences, choosing a compelling theme, deciding which facts to emphasize, and determining how to address effectively unfavorable facts and law. Thus, never approach legal writing as a mechanical or formulaic endeavor; understand that the quality of your judgment and common sense will impact substantially your brief’s quality and persuasiveness.
Ultimately, how you say something is equally, if not more, important than what you say. For law students, the message should be clear: the quality of your writing and communication skills largely determines whether you will be successful in the legal profession.