|Oregon State Bar Bulletin FEBRUARY/MARCH 2007|
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.
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.
- Rather, in this Circuit, courts have consistently equated the concept of futility with the inability of a litigant to present his or her claim for administrative review. (27 words. 10 working words. 17 glue 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:
- Rather, in this Circuit, courts equate futility with a litigant’s inability to present his or her claim for administrative review. (20 words. 10 working words. 10 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:
- Rather, this Circuit equates futility with a litigant’s inability to obtain administrative review. (13 words. 8 working words. 5 glue words.)
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.
- Plaintiff’s claim may only be dismissed if it is clear that she can prove no set of facts that would entitle her to relief. (24 words.)
- Plaintiff’s claim may be dismissed only if she can clearly prove no set of facts that would entitle her to relief. (21 words.)
- Having found that there is no genuine issue of material fact, the court must now determine whether the misrepresentation was material. (21 words.)
Similarly, there is and there are often refer to no known entity and can be removed.
- Having found no genuine issue of material fact, the court must now determine whether the misrepresentation was material. (18 words.)
- In order for a claim to be considered exhausted, it must be "fairly
presented" to the state courts. (18 words.)
- For a claim to be exhausted, it must be "fairly presented" to the state courts. (15 words.)
Likewise the words in order—when used in the phrases in order to, in order that and in order for—almost never convey meaning and can be eliminated.
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
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.
- The issue of materiality is a question for a jury. (10 words.)
- Materiality is a question for a jury. (7 words.)
- Appellants correctly note that the filing of a bankruptcy petition triggers an automatic stay. (14 words.)
- Appellants correctly note that filing a bankruptcy petition triggers an automatic stay. (12 words.)
Sometimes of can be changed to a more concise possessive form.
- We need not reach beyond the four corners of the document to explore the intent of the parties. (18 words.)
- We need not reach beyond the document’s four corners to explore the parties’ intent. (14 words.)
Other times, the prepositional phrase can be changed to an adjective.
- The award of $6,000 must then be analyzed under section 523(a)(15).(11 words.)
- The $6,000 award must then be analyzed under section 523(a)(15). (10 words.)
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.
- We find that there was adequate probable cause to support the issuance of the Search Warrant. (16 words.)
- We find that there was adequate probable cause to issue the Search Warrant. (13 words.)
Highlighting the remaining working words in the
sentence suggests ways to
reduce the sentence further:
- We find that there was adequate probable cause to issue the Search
Warrant. (13 words.)
- The judge had probable cause to issue the Search Warrant. (10 words.)
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.
- This hearing officer was subject to the supervision, direction and
control of the attorney general. (15 words.)
- This hearing officer was supervised, directed and controlled by the attorney general. (12 words.)
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:
- The Savings Plan makes reference to these sections of the Guide.
- The Savings Plan refers to these sections of the Guide. (10 words.)
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).
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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