How to: tighten sentences, use strong verbs, omit jargon, and make every word count. Part 14 of the Legal Methods Lecture Series By Clare Coleman
Introduction The goal of concise writing is to use the most effective words. Edit for conciseness and clarity after you’ve written a complete first draft. If your writing is clear and succinct, then your thinking will be clear and well-developed, too.
1:Keep subject, verb, and object close together. A sentence is built around a core of subject + verb (+object). EX: Jack sued Jill. The clearest sentences keep the core together. Instead of: “Jack, who was angry when the water spilled, sued, in federal court, Jill, who had dropped the handle of the pail. How to edit: Identify subject (“Jack”), verb (“sued”), object (“Jill”), and place them together. Jack sued Jill when she dropped the pail’s handle. He brought the claim in federal court.
2: Use strong verbs and eliminate adverbs General Rule: Replace several vague words with one powerful and specific word. Specific Rule: Use a concise verb rather than a vague verb + description about the verb (adverb). EX: Instead of: She ran quickly from the scene of the accident and the police officer ran after her. Try: She fled the scene and the officer chased her. EX: Instead of: He is the owner of the company. Try: He owns the company. How to edit: (1) Use the “search” function in your word processing program and find “ly” endings. Eliminate the “ly” word and its connecting verb, and substitute a stronger verb. (2) Search for all forms of the verb “to be” and replace with a more precise verb.
3: Convert nominalizations into verbs “Nominalizations” are verbs that have been turned into nouns. Nominalizations cause clutter. EX: Defense counsel made an objection to the prosecution's question. Try: Defense counsel objected to the prosecutor’s question. How to Edit: Search for common nominalization endings and see if you can convert those words into verbs: -al, -ence, -ancy, -ment, -ion, -ity, -ency, -ant, -ent, - ance.
4: Omit clichés and redundant words Unnecessary pairs. The judge referred back to the document. Past history shows that … Unnecessary prepositional phrases He drove at his usual rate of speed We are in the process of filing a motion. The thief ran a distance of 20 feet. At this point in time. Unnecessary words: Because of the fact that the defendant → Because the defendant Despite the fact that the judge → Although the judge Due to the fact that the jury → Because the jury In view of the fact that the law in this state → Because the law How to Edit: (1) Cut one word of an unnecessary pair. (2) Cut extraneous prepositional phrases (phrases that begin with in, of, at, by, with, from, on, of). (3) Delete phrases that end in “that.”
5: Make every word earn its place in the sentence. Every word should provide something important and unique to the sentence Don’t string together “noun chains.” The judge held that the television antenna manufacturing facility‘s emissions violated EPA standards. Try putting the last noun first and eliminating some or all of the other nouns. “The judge held that the [plant’s] emissions violated ….” Avoid metaphors and flowery language. Use familiar language.
Sources and Further Reading Richard C. Wydick, Plain English for Lawyers Anne Enquist and Laurel Currie Oates, Just Writing: Grammar, Punctuation, and Style for the Legal Writer (2d ed.) The Purdue University Online Writing Lab (OWL), http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/