PARING DOWN YOUR LEGAL PROSE

June 23, 2011 § 2 Comments

The importance of being Ernest

Nobel Prize-winning author Ernest Hemingway worked as a reporter for the Kansas City Star newspaper in 1917.  The sparse, compact language of journalism proved to be ideally suited to his writing skills, and he adopted it as his style.  The minimalist prose that resulted became his trademark.

Here are excerpts from the paper’s style sheet:

  • Use short sentences. Use short first paragraphs. Use vigorous English. Be positive, not negative.
  • Eliminate every superfluous word, as “Funeral services will be at 2 o’clock Tuesday,” not “The funeral services will be held at the hour of 2 o’clock on Tuesday.” “He said” is better than “He said in the course of conversation.”
  • Avoid the use of adjectives, especially such extravagant ones as “splendid,” “gorgeous,” “grand,” “magnificent,” etc.
  • Be careful of the word “also.” It usually modifies the word it follows closest. “He, also, went” means “He, too, went.” “He went also” means he went in addition to taking some other action.
  • Be careful of the word “only.” “He only had $10″ means he alone was the possessor of such wealth; “He had only $10″ means the ten was all the cash he possessed.
  • A long quotation without introducing the speaker makes a poor lead especially and is bad at any time. Break into the quotation as soon as you can, thus: “‘I should prefer,’ the speaker said, ‘to let the reader know who I am as soon as possible.’”

“Those were the best rules I ever learned for the business of writing,” Hemingway told a reporter in 1940. “I’ve never forgotten them. No man with any talent, who feels and writes truly about the thing he is trying to say, can fail to write well if he abides with them.”

There’s something for lawyers to chew on here. Is your writing clear, concise and direct? Does it make your point in the first sentence, or in the first few words, or do you make the reader meander through prolix piles of prose? Does it read like nineteenth-century legal jargon, or does it state your client’s position in easily comprehensible language?

Take a few minutes to read your pleadings. Take a few minutes to review your motions and briefs. Does your writing do the job for your client, or does it get in the way?

When a judge reads your pleadings, motions or briefs, can he or she get right to the point, or does it take laborious digging to get there? And when the judge finally gets to the point, is it clear exactly what the point is?

Do you have a reliable style book you can pull out and check from time to time? I like Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. It’s timeless without being stuffy, and at a mere 85 pages, it’s packed with easy-to-find gems. The chapters include rules of usage, principles of composition, commonly misused expressions, matters of form, and an approach to style. There’s a lot here that is easily digestible and quite useful.

Give your writing a little thought. It’s one of your most potent tools to advance your client’s interest. And consider that muddled writing is symptomatic of muddled thought; if you can’t find a way to express it in writing, you may not be able to say it at all.

Thanks to Futility Closet for the Hemingway material.

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