Oregon State Bar Bulletin — JUNE 2008
The Legal Writer
Keep it Simple
‘Short and Sweet’ Brings Clarity to Legal Writing
By Suzanne E. Rowe

Too often, we lawyers seem to search for lofty ways to express our thoughts. Instead, we should be striving for simplicity. Simplicity often brings clarity, which is the real key to good legal writing. Compare the following options:

Option 1: Wherefore it behooves members of the bench and bar to scribe their tomes utilizing utterances of utmost lucidity, hereinafter follows a discussion of how best to achieve said utterances.

Option 2: Judges and lawyers should write clearly. This article contains suggestions for clear writing.

Achieving simple writing is, well, simple. Use simple words, simple phrases, simple verbs and simple structure. At the same time, prefer short sentences and paragraphs. Keep your writing short and sweet, and you’ll likely be a better legal writer.

Simple Words
We lawyers tend to prefer fancy words, even when simple words would work better. This preference for fuzzy-sounding, clarity-squelching big words is rooted in our history. Our forebears from England brought with them not only the common law, but also its pompous language. We can make the same lofty ideas clearer by using short, simple words.

Complex: Simple:
aforementioned previously stated [or nothing]
automobile car
elucidate explain
expedite hurry
inasmuch as since / because
said this / that
termination end
utilize use

An occasional fancy word isn’t a tragedy in your writing. But watch what happens when fancifiers crowd into one sentence.

Complex example: Inasmuch as I am an enthusiastic women’s basketball fan, I will utilize my vacation days to maneuver my automobile to Corvallis next winter with great repetition, and in the aforementioned city I will observe said sport as performed by the OSU team.

Simple example: Because I love women’s basketball, I will use my vacation days to drive to Corvallis frequently next winter to watch the OSU team play.

The use of fancy words is now called a "Shift-F7" — the link to the thesaurus feature in Word. A writer who is trying to look smart can hit Shift-F7 a few times and change from a perfectly clear sentence to a perfectly obtuse one.

Simple example: The lawyer’s use of the evidence was risky for all the reasons discussed earlier.

Shift-F7 example: The legal representative’s utilization of the evidence was perilous for all of the aforementioned rationales.

Simple Phrases
We lawyers also tend to prefer long strings of words, even when one or two words could get the job done. Do your clients pay more for fluff? Your writing will likely be clearer if you ax the excess.

Some of the most commonly used wordy phrases can be split into three categories: those dealing with time, those addressing causation and those showing significance. The lists below show how to simplify your writing by replacing wordy phrases with single words.

Time Phrases:
at the present time now

at that point in time then

during the time that during

in many instances often

in the event that if

prior to before

subsequent to after

Causation Phrases:
because of the fact that because

despite the fact that though

for the purpose of to

in order to to

Significance Phrases:
it is certain that certainly

it is important to note that significantly

there is no doubt that doubtless

Simple Verbs
We add fluff — and excess baggage — when we dress up simple verbs as nominalizations. ("Nominalization" is a fancy word for a noun that started its life as a verb.) When you use a nominalization in place of a verb, you need a new verb to prop it up. Thus, you could act (simple verb) or take action (nominalization).

If you typically use the following nominalizations, give consideration to — no, just "consider" — using their simpler verbs instead.

Nominalization: Simple Verb:
take action act
make an assumption assume
have a collision collide
draw a conclusion conclude
give consideration to consider
raise an objection object
make a statement state

Short Sentences
What’s true for words is also true for sentences. Short sentences are often clearer than their hefty alternatives.

The average sentence in your writing should be 25 words long. Depending on your margin width and your favorite font, 25 words will fill no more than two or three lines of standard-sized paper. So when a sentence spills over to a fourth, fifth or sixth line (gasp!), pull out your hoarded periods and place them appropriately.

Of course, you don’t want a string of sentences that are exactly 25 words long. Your writing should flow like water, not stand rigidly like a brigade of soldiers at morning muster. Sentences with different purposes require different lengths. But remember to balance the occasional sentence of 37 words with a pithy statement of 13.

Simple Structure
Simple sentence structure generally makes writing easier to understand. The standard structure in English is subject — verb — object. The subject is the actor in the sentence; the verb is the action; and the object receives the action. We sacrifice simplicity when we tinker with the order of this basic structure, perhaps by putting the recipient of the action first.

Complex structure:
The complaint was filed by Melissa.

By the judge an order was issued. (Is anyone thinking of Yoda?)

Litigation was avoided by other parties.

Of course, that structure creates passive voice. Don’t get me started on the potential evils of passive voice! Just review my colleagues’ essays: "Finding and Fixing the Passive Voice" (July 2007) and "The Beauty of the Verb" (October 2007). Then note how nicely the following sentences use the standard subject — verb — object structure.

Simple structure:
Melissa filed the complaint.

The judge issued an order.

Other parties avoided litigation.

Another challenge to simple sentence structure is what I call the embedded insight. While writing a perfectly lovely sentence, the writer has a brain spark that he must insert immediately. Frequently, that insertion interrupts the flow of the sentence and separates the subject from the verb. Both results defeat clarity. Consider moving the insight to its own sentence. The following examples show a complex sentence of 42 words broken into two sentences that average 21 words. One sentence has just seven words; the next has 34.

Complex structure: The librarian, who had extensive experience dealing with members of the public who tried to research issues without using the online explanations the staff had prepared, was running out of patience with the current patron who refused to listen to her suggestions.

Simple structure: The librarian was running out of patience. Although she had extensive experience dealing with members of the public who tried to research issues without using the online explanations the staff had prepared, the current patron refused to listen to her suggestions.

Short Paragraphs
You can further simplify your writing by using short paragraphs. One-half page each is a good baseline. As with sentences, a variety of paragraph lengths will help keep the reader riveted to your prose. When you see a whole page without a paragraph break, have pity on the reader and break the big chunks into more accessible bits.

Lawyers should write clearly and concisely. Doing so is as simple as a KISS: Keep It Short and Sweet.

The New Oxford American Dictionary (2d ed. 2005).

Richard C. Wydick, Plain English for Lawyers (5th ed. 2005).

Suzanne E. Rowe is an associate professor at the University of Oregon School of Law, where she directs the Legal Research and Writing Program. Her email is srowe@law.uoregon.edu. She is grateful to Amy Nuetzman and Harvey Rogers for comments on this article.

© 2008 Suzanne E. Rowe

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