Tuesday, November 29, 2011
Here's an excerpt of an interview with Marie Buckley, author of The Lawyers's Essential Guide to Writing from the December ABA newsletter. When asked to describe the best tips for improving one's legal writing, Ms. Buckley said that lawyers should "lead from the top."
Leading from the top is the key to strong, confident writing . . . . In a nutshell, it means that we should always lead with our conclusion.
Leading from the top tells our readers what to look for in the rest of the paper, much like the literary technique of foreshadowing. If we begin by telling our readers what is important, they will hunt for that information as they read and that information will click readily when we present it later. And because our readers know where the paper is going, we can spend less time on transitions later in the paper.
Leading from the top means different things in different mediums, but it works for all forms of writing. In email, for example, the subject line should lead for the whole message and the opening sentence is essential. In PowerPoint, earlier slides lead for later slides. In social media, the first encounter with the reader must lead for the rest of the written material.
Aside from the time-honored advice about avoiding legalese and jargon, what else can lawyers do to improve the quality of their writing? Ms. Buckley concurs with advice we've heard from other experts; write with confidence, express yourself concisely and always put the reader first.
Strong writing conveys who the writer is as a lawyer and a person. The writer’s voice and intellect sing through and the writing conveys confidence and fosters trust.
Strong writing always considers the readers’ needs. It makes reading as easy as possible because it speaks in a language our readers already know and love—plain English. It avoids jargon and legalese and it uses brave, short sentences.
Good writing focuses our readers’ attention for them because it leads from the top by stating the conclusion at the beginning. Each paragraph begins with a strong lead sentence. Our readers should be able to understand the paper by reading only the first sentence of every paragraph.
Strong writing is concise, but thorough. It always gives our readers choices. Headings and topic sentences allow readers to choose not to read a section or paragraph or to flag a passage for later reading. Strong writing also keeps our readers’ eyes moving. It establishes a measured pace and maintains that pace. The logic flows smoothly and the paper flows.
Finally, good writing looks clean, attractive and professional. Headings, white space and careful alignment all make our papers easier to read. Proximity is also an essential design principle and it simply requires that similar information be placed close together.
You can read the rest of Ms. Buckley's advice here.
Hat tip to Carli Pierson.