ON LEGAL WRITING
None of this is original.
Are lawyers bad writers? Well – yes and no. Sometimes we can get lost. I personally attribute it to post traumatic stress disorder from reading constitutional law cases in the 1970’s on the division of powers under the then British North America Act. Sentences in these cases were the length of long paragraphs and contained so many double negatives that at the end of them, my brain was a pretzel and I had no idea what the writer was saying.
Perhaps as second year law students, we thought this is how we are supposed to write. After all, long, dense, convoluted, rambling sentences showed the reader we were smarter than them. Right?
Thankfully, in the 1980’s a movement (which had always been around) gained traction in Canada and the United States which exhorted us to make our writing clear, concise, and compelling. In other words, to make it understandable. That has always been the goal of writing, but, as I say, we sometimes get lost.
While we have a long way to go, there is good news. Today, with no small aid from technology, at our literal fingertips there is an abundance of texts, articles and seminars readily available on the topic of good writing.
Here are a few of the many great quotes/aphorisms about good writing.
Samuel Johnson: “A man who uses a great many words to express his meaning is like a bad marksman who, instead of aiming a single stone at an object, takes up a handful and throws it hoping he may hit.”
Mark Twain: “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”
George Orwell: “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink… Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific term or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.”.
One that has stayed with me and which I strive for in my writing, is from Einstein: “If you can’t explain it simply you don’t understand it well enough”.
Over the next little while I would like to share with you some of the things I have learned and mistakes I have made struggling with the written word.
AUDIENCE AND PURPOSE
Let’s start with a fundamental question – why am I writing this and who am I writing to? (to whom am I writing?)
We must always know our reader. We cannot communicate effectively if we do not know our reader. Knowing our reader should shape how and what we are going to say. A recent example. The Executive Director of a Professional Association wanted an opinion on a topic for an upcoming board meeting. The board was going to have to authorize action on a matter as a result.
My failure was fundamental. My opinion was too long. It was 2 1/2 pages. It should have been a page. I forgot about my reader. This was an opinion that each Board member had to read along with a lot of other material in order to properly prepare for a board meeting. Always take the time and make the effort to make reading your work easy. When submitting anything which is going to be reviewed by a director in preparation for a board meeting, make it be clear and concise. It should be no longer than 1 page.
My excuse? I didn’t take the time to write it short so I wrote it long. Sound familiar? Mark Twain coined that phrase.
Let me know please if you enjoyed this – I have more if you wish.