Five Foundational Principles of Good (Legal) Writing

Five Foundational Principles of Good (Legal) WritingThis week we welcome back guest writer Tiffany Lo to discuss some important basics in legal writing.

Have you ever gotten a headache from reading a statutory provision that went on for ten lines? Or a sentence in a court opinion featuring too many dependent clauses? Or a legal brief with too much jargon or unnecessary words like herein or thereafter?

As a student of the law, I have always been puzzled by why legislators, attorneys, and judges express ideas in convoluted ways. I am also delighted when a legal brief or court ruling is clean and concise, without compromising on sharp and compelling analysis.

Lawyers write constantly—there is no way around it. Practitioners write emails, memoranda, demand letters, and briefs. Judges and judicial clerks write bench memos and opinions. Legal scholars write articles and opinion pieces. Writing is a key skill, and once the basics are mastered, the creative, storytelling, and advocacy possibilities open up. Law schools require 1Ls to take a legal writing and research class, as well as provide plenty of writing opportunities through research papers, student notes, and clinical assignments. Still, it is important to consciously develop writing as a skill.

I believe in breaking things down and meeting smaller milestones en route to achieving my ultimate goal: becoming a better writer. After attending writing workshops and courses, I’ve learned a few principles that create the foundation of good writing. I also realized that these are not unique to legal prose, but apply to high-quality writing in general. I’m excited to share them with you.

1. Avoid regressions

Regressions happen when your readers need to go back to the beginning of the sentence or paragraph. In other words, their eyes regress. This often happens because the idea was not expressed clearly. For example, placing new information before old information can confuse your readers regarding the connections you are making. Another source of regressions is wordiness, especially when the subject and verb are separated by long dependent clauses.

To minimize regressions, read your work out loud and adopt the mindset of a reader. Did you get lost at a certain point? That is a signal to edit your writing and make it more reader-friendly.

2. Avoid nominalization

As a student, I see government agencies, academics, and practitioners nominalize in their writing all the time. Nominalization is the use of a verb (or an adjective or adverb) as a noun. For example, instead of saying “selecting only five people out of all the candidates was a difficult decision,” nominalization changes the sentence to “the selection of only five…” While grammatically sound, nominalization is less effective for multiple reasons: they elongate the sentence; they obscure vivid language; and they can create ambiguity. Fortunately, the fix is quite easy: convert the nominalization into the verb form!

3. Vary sentence lengths

If you read aloud a paragraph made up of sentences with the same length, you will quickly notice the monotony. On the other hand, sentences that vary in length create music and place emphasis. Overall, they enhance the reading experience. Used properly, the length of the sentence itself, as well as juxtaposed with another sentence, can even conjure up a dramatic effect. Two-word sentences like “not so” can really stand out to your audience, especially after a long statement. A lengthier sentence can also create drama by employing parallelism or certain punctuation marks.

Still, you should reevaluate every long sentence. Adopt the perspective of impatient, disinterested, and tired readers: would they, and when do they, lose interest? The longer you go on, the more likely your readers’ attention span has slipped away. To prevent this, break up the thought into multiple sentences, but make the connections clear through linking words. You can start a new sentence with “and,” “but,” “this means,” “that is,” “thus,” etc. This give your readers a quick break, without them losing your chain of logic.

4. Roadmapping and Signposting

Roadmapping your work in the beginning is extremely helpful for your audience. It previews what is ahead, and helps readers understand how the different pieces come together. Following up with signposting (the most common type being “first, second, third”) keeps your reader engaged and re-orients them every time a new point is introduced.

5. Don’t fear contractions

Many people, including myself, were taught this in grade school: no contractions. I never understood the logic behind it – that contractions weaken the sentence or make the written piece seem too casual.

I believe that contractions can be appropriate for formal legal writing, especially in the facts statement where the advocate is telling the story pre-litigation, and even in the argument portion of the brief. Fortunately, I have some Supreme Court justices in my corner. Justice Kagan, Justice Gorsuch and Chief Justice Roberts all use contractions liberally in their opinions. For more on bringing a conversational style to your writing, take a look at Bryan Garner’s article here.

Of course, recognizing that people have strongly-held opinions on this matter, if you know that your judge, professor, or supervisor think contractions are utterly inappropriate, it is okay to put aside this principle.

Now that you’ve become acquainted with these principles, it’s time to put them into practice! I have a post-it note on my computer screen reminding me to check any of my writings, whether essays or emails, against these principles. I go one by one – looking for potential regressions, then nominalizations, then excessively long sentences, and so on; you get the idea.

Writing is an intensely subjective exercise in that each person has their own style. These fundamental principles do not interfere with style. In fact, they elevate it, by reducing distractions and letting your voice shine.

I hope that these principles provide a helpful starting point in your journey to becoming a better writer, in law and in life!

For other thoughts on good writing, check out the three Cs and one T of legal writing, six legal writing tips to help you stand out in your summer job, and five secrets of effective legal writing.


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About Tiffany Gee Ching Lo

Tiffany Gee Ching Lo is a student at Stanford Law School. She spent her 1L year at the New York University School of Law, where she was involved with Alternative Breaks, Women of Color Collective, and Law Revue, and worked as research assistant. Tiffany received her undergraduate degree from the University of California, Berkeley, graduating magna cum laude with double majors in Political Science and Rhetoric. Tiffany developed an interest in the law from a young age, and have worked in law firms and courthouses in Hong Kong–where she grew up, around the San Francisco Bay Area, and in New York. In her spare time, Tiffany enjoys painting, playing the piano and cello, trying out new recipes, and watching late night talk shows.

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