“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”
Samuel Clemens aka Mark Twain
I was a bad writer as a young lawyer. I believed big words and long sentences would impress clients and judges. I overused adjectives. My best arguments were buried in the middle of briefs. Readers waited until the middle or end of a brief — if they got that far — to know what I wanted.
I learned how to write from a partner assigned to edit my work. Returned drafts resembled murder scenes — with splattered blood everywhere (aka his red ink edits). These were pre-Microsoft Word days, when paper still ruled. Red-faced, I would leave the partner’s office, shuffle down the hallway to my office, and start over.
You don’t need to do the walk of shame to become a better writer. To write better:
- Use short sentences.
- Eliminate extra words (e.g. profoundly, literally, completely, totally, very).
- Get to the point at the outset of your email/brief/letter.
- Avoid long emails.
- Avoid long paragraphs — Think: do you like reading emails with never-ending paragraphs?
- Use headings, especially if you must write a longer email or letter.
- Use “because” when making your request or point: “I would like you to buy our product because it is three times more effective, and less expensive, than our competition’s product.”
- Don’t bury your best point midway through your writing; if you see you have done this, move it up to the beginning of your letter.
Do an experiment: the next time you read someone else’s, or your own, writing, look at my tips again. Ask yourself: could the email/letter/legal brief be improved? I’ll bet you answer “yes.” If yes, edit the document, unless it is too late — an opportunity lost.
Comic strip authors are perhaps the best writers. Forced to tell a story in as little as three or four sentences, they capture your attention, get to the point, and waste no words. “Dilbert” by Scott Adams is one of my favorite comic strips because of its satirical office humor. Read it a few times and you will find yourself thinking, “hey, that reminds me of [so and so] in my office.”
Adams gives great writing advice. I leave you with his article “The Day You Became a Better Writer”:
I went from being a bad writer to a good writer after taking a one-day course in “business writing.” I couldn’t believe how simple it was. I’ll tell you the main tricks here so you don’t have to waste a day in class.
Business writing is about clarity and persuasion. The main technique is keeping things simple. Simple writing is persuasive. A good argument in five sentences will sway more people than a brilliant argument in a hundred sentences. Don’t fight it.
Simple means getting rid of extra words. Don’t write, “He was very happy” when you can write “He was happy.” You think the word “very” adds something. It doesn’t. Prune your sentences.
Humor writing is a lot like business writing. It needs to be simple. The main difference is in the choice of words. For humor, don’t say “drink” when you can say “swill.”
Your first sentence needs to grab the reader. Go back and read my first sentence to this post. I rewrote it a dozen times. It makes you curious. That’s the key.
Write short sentences. Avoid putting multiple thoughts in
one sentence. Readers aren’t as smart as you’d think.
Learn how brains organize ideas. Readers comprehend “the boy hit the ball” quicker than “the ball was hit by the boy.” Both sentences mean the same, but it’s easier to imagine the object (the boy) before the action (the hitting). All brains work that way. (Notice I didn’t say, “That is the way all brains work”?).
That’s it. You just learned 80% of the rules of good writing. You’re welcome.
“So the writer who breeds more words than he needs, is making a chore for the reader who reads.”
Art Bourque is an AV rated lawyer who has been practicing law in Phoenix, Arizona for 28 years. Art is a commercial and tort litigator. Art also practices employment law and conducts management training to help businesses operate efficiently and avoid mistakes. Art can be found at www.bourquelaw.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, 602.559.9550, linkedin, or trail running with his dog, Eli.
Art wishes to thank John Lemaster, who taught him how to write. John is not only a solid lawyer, he is a good human being. That’s right, a few attorneys are human, too. John, thank you, and I sincerely apologize for all the edit angst I caused you “back in the day.”