Oregon State Bar Bulletin — FEBRUARY/MARCH 2007
The Legal Writer
Three Steps for Removing the Muck in Writing
By Joan Malmud

"Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences …. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short . . . but that every word tell."

— William Strunk Jr.

If we agree that "vigorous writing is concise" and that concise writing requires that "every word tell," how do we write so every word tells?

Your writing can become more vigorous and concise if you play a little. By moving words in and out, experimenting with their form and order, you will begin to see new, more concise possibilities.

But you’re a busy person, so play efficiently. Look for words that, time and again, signal excess. Three typical excess-indicators are 1) a high proportion of glue words, 2) the preposition "of" and 3) nominalizations. Although these three do not account for all the muck in our writing, if you contain these three, your sentences will shrink.

Glue Words
Every sentence contains both working words and glue words. A working word carries meaning in a sentence. A glue word holds the working words together to form a sentence. While every sentence must have both, problems arise when the proportion of glue words is too high.

To determine the proportion of glue words to working words, bring out your colored pens and highlight all the working words. (Try it. After all, when was the last time you got to play and color at work?) In the example below, I made do with italicizing the working words.

The highlighting allows you to focus on the working words and imagine new combinations that squeeze out nearly half the glue words. The example below squeezes out half the glue words:

If your first effort does not look concise enough, play a little more. Look for words that represent the same idea, and eliminate the overlap. Call for a change-up. Bring in one new word to replace a longer phrase. For example:

Although colored pens can help you see alternatives, you don’t always need them to see words performing no work.

Some phrases usually carry no meaning. It is is one such example. Do a search for it is. If it does not actually refer to a noun, try to eliminate it.

Although you may sometimes decide to keep one of the above constructions, each is a good candidate for the chopping block because, usually, they refer
to nothing.

This may seem simplistic, but a search for "(space) of (space)" will expose a variety of wordy phrases.

For instance, of is often attached to a phrase that, when looked at closely, is needless.

Sometimes of can be changed to a more concise possessive form.

Other times, the prepositional phrase can be changed to an adjective.

Although the last edit removed only one word, the sentence is stronger for it.

A nominalization is a noun formed from a verb. For example, contribution is a nominalization of the verb to contribute. Sentences are more active and often more concise if you rely on the verb rather its nominalization.

Nominalizations are easy to find if you know what to look for. For example, the preposition of is often connected to a nominalization. Thus, searching for of can also reveal nominalizations.

In the example below, of follows the word issuance, a noun built from the verb to issue. By removing the of and relying on the verb, the sentence becomes more active and concise.

Highlighting the remaining working words in the sentence suggests ways to
reduce the sentence further:

You can also find nominalizations by looking for words ending in –ion. For
example, both supervision and direction are nouns with more direct, active verbs inside.

Finally, you can identify nominalizations even without an of or an I. Simply look for a big word. Does it contain a verb? If it does, extract the verb, and try using the verb instead of the noun:

Although the above revision removed only one word, it brings us one word closer to a sentence with no unnecessary parts, a sentence that is vigorous and concise.

All examples are drawn from opinions reported at 448 F.3d 382-1381 or 427 F. Supp. 2d 1-1368. The phrases glue words and working words are borrowed from Richard Wydick, Plain English For Lawyers 7 (5th ed. 2005). Bryan Garner suggested the search for "of" in Legal Writing in Plain English 40-41 (2001).

Joan Malmud is currently acting director of the Legal Writing Program at the University of Oregon, where she has taught for the last six years. She previously worked in the litigation department of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison in New York City.

© 2007 Joan Malmud

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