Nutshell Writing Tips: Lead with the Conclusion

Posted: May 5th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Lead from the Top, Nutshell Tips, Structure (Important Stuff Here) | Tags: , , , , | No Comments »

Let’s continue with my top writing tips—the concrete techniques that I find myself referring to again and again as I coach lawyers one-to-one. Here is the next tip in the series and the running list is posted below. Stay tuned!

Tip Five: Lead with the Conclusion

Lead with your conclusion. Lead from the top by putting your conclusion in the opening page and a half or, better yet, in the first paragraph. Again, the most important structural rule for any expository writing is to lead from the top and that includes having  the courage to conclude.  So be brave and take a stand in the opening of your paper.

   The Running List of Nutshell Writing Tips

1. Speak human. Write in plain English. If you would not use a word or phrase when speaking with a colleague, don’t use it in your writing. (By the way, plain English does not mean simple English. You are entitled to use your massive vocabulary, but use that vocabulary to convey nuance and precision—not to show off.) Here are more plain English tips.

2. Say your sentences out loud. Say each sentence aloud to edit for plain English and to cure clutter and awkward constructions. The best writing mimics the cadence and rhythm of human speech. Trust your ear.

3. Lead from the top.  Your opening must establish your command of your subject and “prime” your reader by telling them what to look for. The opening must explain the facts, the problem, and your answer. You should open, at most, in a page and a half. The strongest writing opens in the first paragraph. Leading from the top is the most important rule of all and here is more on how to lead from the top.

4. Begin with the background story. Your target audience is not just the attorney who gave you the assignment, but also the next person who reviews the file and who may not know the background of your case. Always set the stage by introducing the key players, explaining the nature of their relationship, and identifying the problem or issue. (In other words, skip the facts. Tell a story instead.)

-Marie

P. S. These techniques are a nutshell summary of the key principles in my book, The Lawyer’s Essential Guide to Writing (ABA 2011). Follow the link to see what people have said about the book or to order it from the ABA, Amazon or Itunes.

 

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Nutshell Writing Tips: Lead from the Top

Posted: April 21st, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Mission Critical Stuff, Nutshell Tips, Structure (Important Stuff Here) | No Comments »

Let’s continue with my top writing tips—the concrete techniques that I find myself referring to again and again as I coach lawyers one-to-one. Here is the next tip in the series and the running list is posted below. Stay tuned!

Tip Three: Lead from the Top

(The Most Important Rule)

“Prime” your reader by leading from the top. Your opening must establish your command of your subject and “prime” your reader by telling them what to look for. The opening must explain the facts, the problem, and your answer. You should open, at most, in a page and a half. The strongest writing opens in the first paragraph. Here is more on how to lead from the top.

  The Running List of Nutshell Writing Tips

1. Speak human. Write in plain English. If you would not use a word or phrase when speaking with a colleague, don’t use it in your writing. (By the way, plain English does not mean simple English. You are entitled to use your massive vocabulary, but use that vocabulary to convey nuance and precision—not to show off.) Here are more plain English tips.

2. Say your sentences out loud. Say each sentence aloud to edit for plain English and to cure clutter and awkward constructions. The best writing mimics the cadence and rhythm of human speech. Trust your ear.

-Marie

P. S. These techniques are a nutshell summary of the key principles in my book, The Lawyer’s Essential Guide to Writing (ABA 2011). Follow the link to see what people have said about the book or to order it from the ABA, Amazon or Itunes.

 

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The Three Essential Rules for Writing

Posted: March 13th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Mission Critical Stuff, Most Popular Posts, Structure (Important Stuff Here) | Tags: , , | 1 Comment »

All my suggestions for powerful writing boil down to three guiding principles. And these principles apply not only to formal briefs and memoranda, but to the many mediums in which modern lawyers work—letters, email, blogs, newsletters and even PowerPoint.

The Three Rules

1. Use plain English.

2. Lead from the top.

3. Tell your reader what to do next.

Rule One: Use Plain English

We’ve all heard the common admonition to “use plain English.” Our clients speak a modern language and we should too. So if you would not use a word or phrase when speaking with a colleague, don’t use it in your writing. Speak human.

Rule Two: Lead from the Top

The principle of “leading from the top” is the single, most effective tool for strong writing and the essential rule for structuring any piece of writing. If you open your paper by telling your reader what is important, they will look for that information as they read. When you present that information later, the reader will seize on it and it will click quickly, like a puzzle piece snapping into a space that you have already prepared for it. And the principle of leading from the top is like a fractal because it applies on large and small scales. Lead a paper with your conclusion. Lead a section with a substantive heading. Lead a paragraph with a summary sentence. Lead an email with a strong subject line. Lead the message itself with a summary sentence. Leading from the top is the key to tight, logical writing.

Rule Three: Tell Your Reader What to Do Next

Sane people don’t read briefs, contracts and business letters for pleasure. They read them because they are being paid to read them or because they have a problem and need to read them. What do they want? They want to know what to do next and your job is to tell them. What is the client’s problem and what should they do next? What relief are you asking the court to grant?  What do you want your colleague to do after reading your e-mail or your letter? Use your writing to make things happen in the real world.

——————————————————————————————————————-

So one, two, three. Get set! Write!

(If you want a deeper explanation of these three principles, my book covers these principles and others in much more detail.)

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One Comment on “The Three Essential Rules for Writing”

  1. 1 A Lawyer's Guide to Writing » Blog Archive The importance of pattern in legal writing said at 9:40 pm on May 31st, 2012:

    […] The most common examples of pattern in legal writing are forms. Because we are so familiar with common legal forms, they make reading easier because we know where to look in the form for certain information. But don’t be enslaved to a form. Use a form only if it follows the three essential rules of writing. […]


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Capture your reader in the opening of your paper

Posted: January 26th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Mission Critical Stuff, Most Popular Posts, Structure (Important Stuff Here) | Tags: | No Comments »

You will win or lose your reader in the “opening” of your paper, so even the most brilliant Argument or Analysis cannot undo the damage wrought by a sloppy opening. What are the ingredients for a strong opening? Whatever format you use, you must do three things in your opening:

  1. Explain the background “story.”
  2. Make the issue clear. (The issue will usually be clear from the story. If it is not, you should ask a question.)
  3. State your answer in big, bold neon lights.

In a substantive memorandum, you have—at most—a page and a half to “open.” The strongest writers “open” in the first paragraph. Avoid a vague discussion of abstract legal principles and frame your opening around your client’s facts.

 

 

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How to Structure a Legal Memo: Lead from the Top

Posted: October 25th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Memos and Briefs, Mission Critical Stuff, Most Popular Posts, Structure (Important Stuff Here) | 1 Comment »

The guiding principle for structuring any paper is to “lead from the top.” Why is leading from the top so important? Because leading from the top primes your readers by telling them what to look for in the rest of the paper. If you open your paper by telling your readers what is important, they will look for that information as they read. When you present that information later, your readers will seize on it and it will click quickly, like a puzzle piece snapping into the space that you have already prepared for it. Leading from the top is like the literary technique of foreshadowing. It prepares your readers for what happens later.

The best legal memos use FICA (or FICAR) as their basic structure. The acronym may be horrid, but FICA works because it leads from the top:

  • Facts
  • Issue
  • Conclusion

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ (the opening ends here) _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

  • Analysis
  • (Recommendations)

The dotted line marks the end of the opening–the key real estate in which you have the sacred gift of your readers’ attention, whether you deserve it or not. Your opening should highlight what you want your readers to focus on as they read the paper. Every opening must do three things:

  1. The opening must tell the “back story” so that your readers know the context in which the legal question arises. Who are the parties? How did they meet? What is the problem? Don’t go overboard. Three or four sentences is usually enough. Save the detailed facts for later.
  2. The opening must make the issue clear. (If the issue is clear from the facts, you may not need to state the issue separately. Just go right into the Conclusion or Answer.) Don’t begin your issues with whether. Just ask a plain, simple question and put a pretty question mark at the end.
  3. The opening must state your answer. This is all your readers care about. Label the answer clearly as Conclusion or Brief Answer and keep it short, plain and clean.

Informal papers–the kind that we all prefer to read–condense the entire opening into a single introductory section that explains the back story, the issue and the conclusion:

  • Introduction and Conclusion

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

  • Analysis
  • (Recommendations)

If you use this format, be sure that your first heading screams the word Conclusion. Otherwise, you won’t get credit for reaching a conclusion.

How much time do you have to open? A page and a half. Your readers will tune out after that if you haven’t given them good reasons to keep reading. (Trust me on this. I read a lot of papers.)

If you have done your job in the opening, your readers will trust you and will cross that invisible dotted line and read your Analysis. And they will read intelligently because you have told them what they should be looking for.

Finally, if you can (and I think you can), finish by telling your readers what to do next. Make Recommendations. You don’t need to answer the ultimate issue in a case, but you should tell your readers what their next steps should be. Ask the court to dismiss Counts I and IV. Tell your colleague to depose Mr. Bigshot, to move to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction, or to interview Witness X, Y and Z. Tell your client what documents you need her to produce. Keep the ball rolling in the real world by being proactive and practical.

And that, my friends, will make you look smart and wise.

 

 


One Comment on “How to Structure a Legal Memo: Lead from the Top”

  1. 1 A Lawyer's Guide to Writing » Blog Archive Nutshell Writing TIps: Be Confident about the Conclusion said at 3:20 pm on December 15th, 2015:

    […] 3. Lead from the top.  Your opening must establish your command of your subject and “prime” your reader by telling them what to look for. The opening must explain the facts, the problem, and your answer. You should open, at most, in a page and a half. The strongest writing opens in the first paragraph. Leading from the top is the most important rule of all and here is more on how to lead from the top. […]


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CIRAC? Better than IRAC, but still not perfect.

Posted: October 6th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Mission Critical Stuff, Most Popular Posts, Structure (Important Stuff Here) | No Comments »

After my last post complaining about IRAC, one twitter follower asked, “What about CIRAC?” It’s a good question and it is definitely heading us in the right direction.

In our world of strange acronyms, CIRAC stands for Conclusion, Issue, Rule, Analysis, Conclusion. (IRAC stands for Issue, Rule, Analysis, Conclusion.)

CIRAC is better than IRAC, but it’s still not perfect. Under CIRAC, the all-important Conclusion is presented early on, which is certainly a good thing and far better than presenting the Conclusion last, as IRAC requires. But CIRAC requires two Conclusions: an opening Conclusion and a final Conclusion. Good writers know that it is probably not wise to write the exact same paragraph twice in a paper. So, under CIRAC, when we write that second and final Conclusion, our instinct tells us to vary the language slightly. The careful reader notices the slight difference and ends up comparing the two Conclusions and asking “How does this final Conclusion differ from the first?” So the final Conclusion ends up undercutting the authority of the opening Conclusion–exactly the result we want to avoid. Except in a very long paper (say 25 pages or more), you should conclude once and once only. And that Conclusion belongs in the opening page and a half of your paper.

CIRAC also catapults the reader right into the Conclusion, without giving the reader any context first. The human mind craves stories–stories about real people and real problems. So it is far better to begin with one or two sentences of background facts that “set the stage.” Who are the parties? How did they meet? What’s the problem?

Rather than end your paper by simply rehashing the Conclusion, be action oriented. Finish by telling the reader what to do next. Tell the court to grant summary judgment for your client on Counts I and II. Tell your client to change the language in its Employees’ Handbook. Suggest that your assigning attorney (the one who told you to write that memo), depose Mr. Smith, Ms. Jones and Cousin John, but only after obtaining documents X, Y and Z.

And since we are trading strange acronyms, I’ll suggest SICAR or FICAR as the model for writing a paper:

  • Story (or Facts)
  • Issue
  • Conclusion
  • Analysis (this is where the cases go)
  • Recommendations (as in what to do next).

I’ll talk more about SICAR (or FICAR) in upcoming posts and I’ll show how to simplify SICAR (and FICAR) into a more modern format.

I hope this helps. Thanks for the question!

 

 

 

 

 



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IRAC? Reader Abuse!

Posted: September 28th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Mission Critical Stuff, Most Popular Posts, Structure (Important Stuff Here) | No Comments »

Many law schools teach  IRACIssue, Rule of Law, Analysis, and Conclusion–as the format for structuring a legal memo. But IRAC is an unforgiveable form of reader abuse.

Under IRAC, the Conclusion comes at the end of the paper. Your poor, abused readers must suffer through pages and pages of legal analysis, without knowing where you are taking them, before they finally find the answer to their question. By then, your readers will be long gone–surfing the internet, checking e-mail, finding another lawyer.

How does any smart reader read a legal paper? Your reader will always read your opening paragraph. If  the conclusion is not stated in the first paragraph, the reader then looks for a heading that screams Conclusion. If the reader doesn’t find it immediately, the reader will scroll through your paper until he or she does find the Conclusion. Skip. Skip. Skip. Under IRAC, your reader finds the Conclusion buried at the end of your document.  Is this the way you want to treat your reader? Particularly a reader who is paying you to write? And do you really want your reader to skip over pages and pages of analysis?

IRAC betrays a stunning lack of confidence. It says to the reader, “Hey, I’m not sure I’m right about this, so I’m going to walk you through my analysis before I put the answer on the table.” (And it’s also confusing. Some students leave their writing program thinking that the C in IRAC means Cases.)

Avoid IRAC and put your Conclusion in the opening of the paper. If you can, put your conclusion in the first paragraph and label it Introduction and Conclusion.  (If you label it as just Introduction, you won’t get credit for reaching a Conclusion.) Or put it in a separate paragraph labeled Conclusion or Brief Answer or Look Here Dummy. (Well … maybe not Look Here Dummy.) But the Conclusion must go in the first page and a half of your paper. Save the detail for later.

I’ll post soon on what format to use instead of IRAC.



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