Losing weight, saving more and getting organized are popular New Year’s resolutions for personal improvement. Similar resolutions can help you improve your legal writing. To make these legal-writing resolutions easy to keep, each resolution is accompanied with concrete implementation tips.
- Cut the fat from your briefs by editing for concision. Losing weight is a perennially popular New Year’s resolution. While it may be difficult to stick to a diet or go to the gym regularly, there are many simple ways to trim brief length, including:
- Avoiding the passive voice: In an active sentence, the subject performs the action (“Good lawyers avoid the passive voice”). In a sentence written in passive voice, the target of the action is promoted to the subject position (“The passive voice is avoided by good lawyers”).
- Limiting the length of block quotations: When using a block quotation, omit any irrelevant portion of the quotation and replace it with an ellipsis (…).
- Choosing your words carefully: If you use expressive verbs and concrete nouns, you won’t need to buttress bland verbs and vague nouns with wordy modifiers. (Instead of “he ran very quickly,” say “he dashed” [or sprinted, bolted or barrelled]).
- Save the reader’s mental energy by making your briefs easier to read. Saving more is a top financial goal for many. Helping the judge (or law clerk) save mental energy for deep processing and analysis—instead of spending an excessive amount of mental energy figuring out what you’re trying to say—should be one of your top legal-writing goals. You can make your briefs easier to read by:
- Avoiding inelegant variation:“Inelegant variation” means referring to the same thing in different ways. It requires the reader to perform the extra step of figuring out whether a word or phrase used in one part of your brief refers to the same thing as a different word or phrase used later in your brief. Be consistent: once you’ve identified Jones as a police officer, refer to him as “Jones” throughout the brief—don’t call him “the officer” in one paragraph and “the policeman” in the next.
- Using simple sentence structure: Instead of stuffing a sentence with qualifications or digressions set off by commas, communicate the same information in a few shorter sentences.
- Laying out all of the steps of your reasoning: Make sure that you synthesize the facts of your case with the applicable legal rule before stating your conclusion.
- Organize your statements of facts with informational headings. Getting organized is another common resolution. Organizing your brief using effective headings—including informational headings—helps the reader in three ways.
- Headings enable skimming. People who read on screens tend to skim documents instead of reading them word-for-word. With the trend toward electronic filing at both the trial and appellate levels, more and more judges are reading briefs on screens. But skimming isn’t limited to screen readers: judges often skim briefs (or read their tables of contents, which are comprised of headings) before reading them more closely, or to refresh their memories in preparation for oral argument.
- Headings help readers structure their mental processing of details. A heading signals that all of the material following it relates to the topic specified in the heading. Conversely, introducing a new topic with a new heading helps the reader switch mental gears.
- Headings provide a pause in the stream of text because they’re visually distinct and set off by white space. This allows the reader to rest both eyes and mind.
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