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.
Tip Seven: Be Confident About Your Conclusion
Be confident about your conclusion. When writing internal memoranda, young lawyers often hesitate to reach a conclusion on complicated issues and simply answer maybe. A conclusion that says maybe is not worth the cost of the research. A maybe conclusion reads as if the lawyer handed all the research to the assigning attorney with a note saying, “Here’s everything. Now you figure it out.” Always reach a definitive answer. If you must qualify your answer, say yes if … or no if …, then be very specific about the circumstances that trigger a yes or no answer. Explain which scenario is most likely to apply to your facts and why. As I’ve said before, show that you have the courage to conclude.
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.)
6. 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.
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. It makes a great gift for your lawyer friends! #shamelessbookpromotion