The movement to encourage lawyers to write in “plain English” is nothing new. In fact, when I went to law school over 15 years ago we were counseled to avoid using fancy legalese and unnecessary verbiage in our legal briefs.
If you are paying attention, you’ll see that I just broke that rule – three times. I was pretty obvious about it; most people would agree that the second sentence above would have been better if I had said “we were taught to avoid using fancy legal terms and unnecessary words in our legal briefs.” But when you are a lawyer, it is not always easy – or effective – to simplify your words into plain English. In fact, many would argue that lawyers need to write “like a lawyer” to be taken seriously and to insure that what they say is legally accurate. Some even say that if you write in a way that everyone can understand, people will stop thinking they need lawyers. Or so the argument goes.
As both a lawyer and writing coach, I tend to fall closer toward the plain English side of things. Too often I’ve seen lawyers use overly exaggerated legal phrases as a way to mask a poor legal argument, sub-par writing skills, or both. The tactic rarely works, and the reader is often left feeling confused, irritated and un-convinced of whatever message the writer was trying to send.
And when you are a writer – legal or otherwise – it all comes down to your message. Your reader needs to hear it, understand it, and then do with it what you want them to. Yes, I did just end that sentence with a preposition. Sometimes you have to break the “rules” to make the most sense.
Some people are naturally strong writers. Others have to work hard at it, and getting even a couple of decent sentences down on paper can feel like torture. But whether or not you consider yourself a good writer, the following tips will help you improve whatever you are trying to say:
1. Know your message
Why are you writing? Do you want to persuade, educate, request action? Before you start to write, try to summarize your purpose and message in a detailed, yet focused, sentence or two. Think about what you want your audience to ultimately know.
2. Give your audience a roadmap
If you are writing anything longer than a couple of paragraphs, tell your readers up front what you want them to know and make it easy for them to find that information. In this piece, for example, I told you right away that I was going to give you five ways to improve your writing. If you wanted, you could have skipped my introductory paragraphs and gone right to the “meat” of the article – the numbered list – and still gotten the majority of my message.
3. Eliminate unnecessary words and phrases
Before you file, send, publish or post something you have written, read it out loud. Listen for wordy phrases, run-on sentences, redundancies and anything else that causes you to take a breath in the middle of reading. Instead of describing something as “red in color”, just say it was red. You rarely need to “apprise” someone; telling him or her will do just fine. If the accident happened because the stoplight was broken, you do not need to say that the accident “resulted because of the fact that the stoplight was malfunctioning.” And you get the idea.
4. Use “legalese” appropriately
Sometimes lawyers need to sound like lawyers. The important thing is to know when you need to use a legal term of art in your writing and when you do not. Words like “heretofore” are rarely necessary, but an argument that the plaintiff is “collaterally estopped” may be the only way to be legally accurate. Before using a legal term, make sure you have a rational justification for your word choice, and eliminate the words that are not needed to make your point.
5. Know your message
I’m listing this twice because it is so important. If you do not have a message, there is no reason to be writing in the first place.