Sunday, January 09, 2005

The Write Stuff

Terry Cuff, a prolific writer and speaker on tax law subjects, was asked by a colleague, who was not a lawyer, to quickly summarize some general principles of writing for publication. Terry passed them on to some of his colleagues who are lawyers and I pass them on here because I think that they should be of interest to a wider audience.
  • Write for a reader who is bored, disinterested, and has little patience. That often will not be far off the mark.

  • Write for a reader who will only skim the text -- and perhaps pick what is interesting.

  • Write for the reader -- not for yourself. Try to know your reader--or potential reader -- and divine what he or she is interested in.

  • Be practical. Stress applications over rules. Use examples where appropriate.

  • Say something useful. If you can, say something original, but definitely say something useful.

  • Provide an introduction to capture the reader's attention. Assume that the reader has 100 manuscripts to read and that he will select only one of them based on the introduction. You are fighting for the reader's attention.

  • Write in an inverted pyramid, with most important material at the front and least important material at the end.

  • Have a strong summary close to the beginning. State all material conclusions in that summary.

  • Use strong subtitles that summarize.

  • Write introductory paragraphs of each section as if that is all the reader will read. Stress the conclusion of the section in the introductory paragraph.

  • Generally, write paragraphs as if reader will read only the first sentence of the paragraph. This often will be the case. Readers often merely skim material.

  • Write in a simple, direct style.

  • Avoid long sentences.

  • Minimize passive voice.

  • Avoid or minimize introductory clauses.

  • Stress subject-object-verb format.

  • Write unambiguously. Check all pronouns for ambiguity.

  • Readers tend to skip boxes, long quotations, etc. Summarize them in the text.

  • Drop citations and unimportant material that break up the text to footnotes. Citations in text slow a reader down and disrupt the flow. (I understand that some periodicals require citations in text. This is an unfortunate, outdated practice, but one I cannot reform.)

  • Edit ... edit ... edit ... edit. The best editing is multiple pass editing. On each pass, edit for a different purpose: content ... organization (does the text adhere to the best outline?) ... streamlining text for readability ... clarity and ambiguity ... subtitles ... section introductory paragraphs ... paragraph introductory sentences ... paragraph length ...sentence organization, simplicity, length and structure ... passive voice and personal writing quirks ... pronouns ... adverb placement ... punctuation ... spelling ... citations ... format and overall manuscript appearance ... finalread through. This represents many independent passes. Approach the material like a woodcarver who gradually shapes and forms his carved wood. Allow more time for editing the manuscript than for writing it in the first place. The key to excellent writing is excellent editing.
Terry states that, "I sometimes have not adhered to these principles quite so well as I should have. My writing would have been better if I had."

I have often said that there is no such thing as good legal writing. There is only good writing. While Terry's guidelines were designed to set out principles for drafting for publication, they are applicable as well to all written communication that is expositive (e.g., briefs, memoranda, letters to counsel and to clients, etc.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The instruction to stress subject-object-verb format me confuses.