|Oregon State Bar Bulletin OCTOBER 2011|
Creating Clear, Colorful Writing
By Megan McAlpin
You’ve probably heard the saying “a picture is worth a thousand words.” But have you ever really thought much about it? Is a picture really worth a thousand words?
I heard someone quote the old adage recently, and after thinking about it for a few minutes, I found myself troubled. Well, troubled might be overstating it a bit, but I did have to stop to think. If a picture is worth a thousand words, why don’t more lawyers include drawings in their court filings?
If you’re a brave soul and willing to be the first in your profession to regularly include photographs and line drawings in your briefs, well then, I commend your bravery. If, on the other hand, you’re not quite ready to take that step, I’d like to propose that, instead of including actual drawings, you find ways to create mental pictures for your readers. (In case you’re wondering where I fall on this actual picture vs. mental picture issue, I will just say that I will not be suggesting that my writing students take drawing or photography lessons.)
Focusing on Your Subject
I know almost nothing about photography. But I do know that when photographers talk about taking pictures, they talk about subjects. They talk about subject placement and focusing on the subject. As writers, we should take our lead from photographers. If we are going to create clear mental pictures for our readers, we have to start with the subject.
In photography, the subject is the person or thing that the photograph is about. The same is true in a sentence — the subject is the person, thing or idea that the sentence is about. Really, every sentence has a subject. In fact, without a subject, a sentence isn’t even a sentence. But just because every sentence has a subject doesn’t mean that every sentence creates a clear picture. (And I know from experience that just because a photograph has a subject doesn’t mean that it’s a clear — or good — photograph.)
So how do you make your subject work for you? How do you use your subject to create a clear mental picture for your reader? Well, there are two simple things you can do: 1) you can lead with your subject, and 2) make sure, if at all possible, that subject is a concrete noun.
Leading with your subject is crucial. If you bury your subject in clutter, you won’t create a very clear mental picture. Consider the following sentence where the writer has buried the subject — the claimants — so deep inside the sentence, it is almost not recognizable as the subject. (Of course, the grammatical subject is establishment, but the people involved aare the subjects that make for interesting writing.)
The establishment of open and notorious, exclusive, hostile and continuous possession of the property by the claimants is necessary.
If she really thought about it, the writer would discover that her sentence is really about the claimants, and she would highlight her subject by putting it first.
The claimants must establish that they had open and notorious, exclusive, hostile and continuous possession of the property.
If, right now, you are thinking that the sentence is not really about the claimants at all but that it is really about the establishment of open and notorious, exclusive, hostile and continuous possession, well, then, I would challenge you to try to draw that. Because, while you might be right — the real point of the sentence might be about the elements of adverse possession — your reader will struggle to see the picture in that sentence.
Here’s the problem: lawyers are often thinking about concepts and ideas (i.e., the elements of adverse possession), so when they write, legal writers often focus on those concepts and ideas. But the problem is that readers (even law- trained readers) have a harder time reading and absorbing sentences that are about concepts and ideas. This, of course, leads to the second thing you can do to create mental pictures for your readers: use concrete nouns. Consider the difference between the following sentences:
Second-degree burglary occurs when a person “enters or remains unlawfully in a building with the intent to commit a crime.” ORS 164.215(1).
A person commits second-degree burglary if she “enters or remains unlawfully in a building with intent to commit a crime.” ORS 164.215(1).
Which created a clearer picture for you? (And please, oh please, say the second one.) The first sentence leads with the abstract idea second-degree burglary and buries the concrete noun person. So, while there is a concrete noun — person — it is buried in the sentence. The second sentence, on the other hand, leads with the concrete noun person and, as result, it creates a much clearer mental picture.
The lesson from all of this, then, is that you should make sure that the grammatical subject of your sentence is a concrete noun. And if that feels too technical, just remember that it’s not nice to bury people. Even if you’re just burying them in sentences. And even if they are committing burglary.
Typically, the best photographs focus on a subject. And, to me at least, the best photographs also show action. Obviously, with a still photograph, action is difficult to show. But the fact that it’s difficult just makes it that much more powerful when a photographer is able to capture the action and turn a single photograph into a story.
Here’s where we as writers actually have an advantage over a photographer. While a photographer has to try to capture the speed at which an athlete is running, writers can choose just the right verb (jogging? running? sprinting?) to describe the action. And, really, that’s all a verb is: a word that describes the action.
Just like every sentence has a subject, every sentence also has a verb. But not all verbs are created equal. Strong, active verbs create clearer mental pictures. And, because we have the ability to create clearer mental pictures by replacing vague verbs with strong, active verbs, we should do just that whenever we can.
Not only do specific verbs create clearer pictures, but they probably also create more accurate pictures, too. For instance, consider the following sentence. The woman exercised. Now, try to picture that woman. When I see her, she’s jogging. (Probably because that’s how I exercise.) But when you see her, she might be swimming or lifting weights or taking a yoga class. So while the verb exercised may seem, at first glance, like a pretty specific verb, it turns out that it’s actually quite vague. And, maybe even worse if you’re a lawyer, it’s ambiguous; it leaves the sentence open to different interpretations.
So, here’s the rule when it comes to verbs: any verb that could be more specific should be more specific. (For more on using active verbs, see The Beauty of the Verb: Creating a Picture in Every Sentence by M.H. Sam Jacobson, October 2007 OSB Bulletin; www.osbar.org/publications/bulletin/07oct/legalwriter.html.) And if that advice seems overwhelming at first, consider starting small by just choosing a few of the more insidious vague verbs in legal writing, such as concerns, involves, deals with — and replacing them. Of course, replacing a vague verb will require you to find a new, more specific verb. And finding that new verb may take some time because it will require you to think about what it is you are actually trying to say. Although figuring out what it is you are actually trying to say may take some work, doing so will be worth it: you will begin thinking — and writing — more precisely and vividly.
Ultimately, I think I’ve decided that a picture really is worth a thousand words. (Well, most of the time and as long as the picture is good.) But, as lawyers, we don’t have the luxury of using a picture or even a thousand words for that matter. What we can do is use the right words to create mental pictures for our readers. Our writing will improve and our readers will thank us. And that is probably worth more than a picture or a thousand words.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Megan McAlpin teaches legal research and writing at the University of Oregon School of Law. You may contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
An archive of The Legal Writer articles is available here.
© 2011 Megan McAlpin