Oregon State Bar Bulletin — AUGUST/SEPTEMBER 2007
The Legal Writer
Abuse of Discretion
Beheadings, Widows and Orphans, Oh My!

By Suzanne E. Rowe

Why are writing curmudgeons so surly? Perhaps it’s because sloppiness and inconsistency can seem like a personal affront. Details that others overlook bother us deeply.

Not every writing detail has a rule; some points are left to the writer’s discretion. But discretion should be exercised consistently, with the reader’s interests in mind.

There are multiple ways that you can make the curmudgeon in your life slightly happier. Just pay attention to detail and be consistent. A few of our pet peeves are explained below.

Page Numbers
Please number the pages of your document. How hard is it to insert page numbers? A few clicks of your mouse? How hard is it for the reader to refer back to page seven? Not at all, unless the reader has to count the document’s pages first.

An added benefit here is that in your final review of the printed document, you’ll notice whether the computer skipped a page. You do flip through all of the pages after printing a final document the final time, right?

One more request: Please use the same style for numbering each page. You can put dashes around your page numbers; you can put the page number on the right or left or in the center; and you can use your favorite font. Just do so consistently.

If you decide to full justify your text — meaning you have even edges on both the left and right margins — do so throughout your document. It’s distracting to have one paragraph full justified and the next one left justified.

The solution is as easy as blocking all of the text in your document and clicking on the justification you prefer. (Note that if you have headings or tables, you may want to leave them out of the blocked text.)

Please use the same amount of space between each sentence. Sloppy spacing especially shows in documents that are not full justified.

Back when we all used typewriters, the standard was two spaces. Curmudgeons like me still prefer that standard. Word processors have made it acceptable to place just one space between sentences. But, please, choose one space or two.

Why would a writer separate sentences in a single paragraph with a variety of spaces? One space here, three spaces there, two spaces somewhere else, and maybe a stray tab thrown in for good measure. Perhaps you think that no one cares; curmudgeons take these details personally.

Abandoned Words
Sometimes a paragraph ends at the top of the following page with just a word or two. Those words seem abandoned by their paragraph, and they can lose their meaning. If a staple has crept too far from the margin, the abandoned words may disappear completely.

A similar problem can occur when a single line of a paragraph begins at the bottom of one page, with the rest of the text on the following page. Whether you call the abandoned words widows or orphans (most folks don’t know the difference), your favorite curmudgeon will appreciate your giving the abandoned words some support.

Two lines of text should be the minimum appearing at the bottom or top of a page. Most computers can be set to avoid widows and orphans. Alternatively, a hard page break does the trick. If you feel uncomfortable leaving blank space at the bottom of a page, add a few slash marks (///) just before the page break. One judge I know does this to keep sneaky lawyers from adding text to his orders.

Beheaded Headings
To continue the theme, please do not end a page with a heading. The reader is likely to skip over it and wonder how you changed gears so quickly from one paragraph to the next. The solution is simple:just use a page break to keep the heading with the following text. No beheadings!

Consistent Heading Format
If you want to italicize your headings, great! But please do so consistently. Don’t italicize the first, underline the second, and capitalize the third. (In fact, try to avoid writing headings in all capitals, which can be hard to read.)

And while we’re being picky, be sure to make a last run through your document to ensure that the headings create a table of contents that flows in a logical order. Skipping from B to D without C may turn the gentlest of readers into a cranky curmudgeon.

Consistent Abbreviations
Most of us abbreviate personal titles most of the time. So the curmudgeon will notice when "Dr. Martinez" morphs into "Doctor Martinez." There’s no reason to change, so why make the curmudgeon unhappy?

If you decide to indent each paragraph in your document one-half inch (the standard), it’s best not switch to one-quarter inch on page two.

Realize that the computer is your enemy here, and when you use an automatic outline function, the computer is likely to fiddle with your indentation. The computer will make things pretty, but perhaps at the cost of consistency. Use Ctrl+Z or Apple+Z to assert your will over the mindless set of keys in front of you.

States and Dates
This pet peeve actually has a rule, but so few writers follow it that I must mention it. States and dates need commas to fence them off from the rest of the sentence.

Example: An attorney from Enterprise, Oregon, is visiting the law school on October 16, 2007, to meet with students interested in working in the area.

The sentence has two clarifications: Enterprise is in Oregon and the visit will occur in 2007. Those details need to be corralled with commas on both sides. It is not enough to put a comma before the state or date.

Incorrect: An attorney from Enterprise, Oregon is visiting the law school on October 16, 2007 to meet with students interested in working in the area.

Think of a fence on just the west side of your property. Your cattle could still roam all the way to New Jersey.

Whenever you have a choice of font type and size, consider the curmudgeon in making your selection. Choose both a type and size that are easy on tired eyes. Then use that font consistently.

Sometimes the gremlins that live in your computer will change the font when you glance away from the screen. More often, you will cut and paste a quote from another document, which existed in another format. Blocking your document and clicking on your selected font should achieve the consistency that puts curmudgeons a bit closer to heaven.

Sometimes the recipient of your document will have rules or expectations about the points noted above. It’s good to check for court rules or office standards before assuming that you get to have your way. When you are free to exercise discretion, remember the curmudgeon who may read your document and exercise your power consistently.

Suzanne E. Rowe is an associate professor at the University of Oregon School of Law, where she directs the Legal Research and Writing Program. She can be reached at srowe@law.uoregon.edu.

© 2007 Suzanne E. Rowe

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