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Three Steps to More Effective Writing: Write Smarter, Not Fancier – Q4 2023 Facts & Findings

If you are reading this, you are likely a legal professional, and that means your work requires written communication. It does not matter if you are composing emails, memoranda, or pleadings. Your words are key to professional effectiveness. Since we are all works in progress, this article suggests three ways to improve your writing and positively impact the contributions you make every day.

These three recommendations have a unifying theme: Be kind to your reader. Why does that matter? Because you are writing to one of two audiences: (1) another legal professional who has to read a lot, or (2) a client who does not speak legalese. Either of these readers will appreciate text that clearly and concisely explains facts and reasoning. When the reader does not have to mine dense prose to get to the points, his or her brain instantly has more bandwidth to consider and use the information you have provided.

Congratulations! After years of hard work in school and on the job, you can read contracts, pleadings, and case law almost as easily as you can skim your social media feed. While reading this type of jargon is a necessary skill, writing in such language is not. On the contrary, the best legal writing does not use jargon.

While many of your readers will be fluent in legalese, they still think in English (or another native tongue). Consciously or not, their brains translate legalese into ordinary language as they digest it. Think about it this way. You do not swallow food in large chunks. No matter who you are, you must chew it before you can digest it.

It is the same for your reader. A lawyer will understand what it means to “ambulate around the quadrilateral,” and a client with a dictionary can decipher the phrase, but either reader will find it easier to understand a “walk around the block.” This leaves the reader with more bandwidth to consider the substance of your argument or explanation, which is where you want him or her focused.

Note: If your topic requires terms of art, use them after you define them. For the rest of the document, do not use unnecessarily complex terminology.

Take the time to break down your topic into chunks. Then organize them in a manner that helps communicate your points. If you have a shuffled list of steps needed to make a stew, you have instructions. If they are in a specific order, you have a recipe. Both the instructions and the recipe have the same information, but the person with the recipe is more likely to end up with the intended meal.

An easy way to provide structure is by using headings as signposts to show the reader where you are in the overall document and where you are going next. This explicit framework lessens the mental load for your reader, allowing him or her to focus on your content. This, in turn, lets your hard work and great points shine.

Note: An added benefit of headings is that they force you as the writer to stick to a specific point without drifting into another topic, which can happen easily.

One of the smartest lawyers I know clerked for the United States Supreme Court. In that role, my friend had a front-row seat to how the proverbial sausage was made in some of the most critical legal texts in our country. One thing she observed was an entire round of editing opinions where the only change that could be made was removing words. The genius of this idea blew my mind.

Can you remove “the” or “an?” Do it. Can you use three words rather than five? Do that. You no longer need to reach a base word count for your English essay. If you can cut length without eliminating substance, you make your reader’s job easier, which will make the substance of your work more effective.

The easier your document is to read, the more mental energy the reader will have to consider the substance. Be kind to your reader, and you will improve your effectiveness with every draft.

Melissa K. Atwood has spent over two decades as a federal and state prosecutor. After serving as a judicial law clerk, Melissa focused her practice on investigating and prosecuting fraud, corruption, and firearms cases. She has extensive experience before trial and appellate courts. Outside the courtroom, Melissa enjoys training other prosecutors and continuing to hone her own knowledge and skills.