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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Think before you write, but begin writing before you have finished thinking.

Posted: June 4th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Efficient Work Habits, Mission Critical Stuff, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments »

Writing is a discipline so it requires that you have efficient, disciplined work habits. Since you are being paid to write, you do not have the luxury of waiting for inspiration to strike. Like any professional writer, you must produce on demand. If you develop good writing habits, those habits will become ingrained and over time, you will find that writing becomes easier and faster.  

We have already talked about the importance (and bliss!) of finding the “flow” and how working on a big screen will improve your productivity. Today, let’s talk about how to organize your thoughts before you start writing.

Think First. Write Later.

Word-processing software is irresistible. It seduces us to start writing before we have begun thinking. Practice safe writing. Put your major thoughts in place—by creating a work page, a mind map or even (horrors!) an outline— before you give into the urge to puts words on paper. (Read on for more on outlining. I’ll talk about mind-mapping in a later post.)

But Begin Writing Before You Have Finished Thinking.

You will learn about your topic by writing about it. So, while you must have some plan in place before you begin writing, that plan will change as you write. Let it change. If you stay flexible and open to new ideas while you write, your paper will become deeper and more relevant. And if you wait to start writing until you have finished thinking, you may never start writing at all.

Have a Plan.

But you must have some plan in place before you begin—whether it is a scribbled work page or a detailed, numbered outline. For example, before William Langiewische wrote his 70,000 word article, “American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center,” in The Atlantic Monthly (July and August, 2002) —then the longest magazine article ever published—he created a handwritten flow chart taking up several feet of butcher paper. (A portion of Langiewische’s butcher-paper outline is reproduced in in this article from the Columbia Journalism Review.)

Outline As You Go.

Outlining works. It is a flexible, efficient tool for organizing your thoughts. But many lawyers avoid outlining, believing it requires them to have a global vision of their paper before they write. Instead, outline in piecemeal fashion while you write. Begin with the most obvious themes: What is your most important case or line of cases? What headings summarize those cases? Then work through your research, case by case, creating new headings and plugging cases into existing headings.

If you approach outlining as a tool, rather than a rigid guideline, outlining will give you control over your writing because it will keep you focused on the big picture. Again, the goal is to have a perfected outline in place by the time you finish writing.

Once you have finished writing and your outline is complete, use that outline as the master key for proofing the structure of your paper. If the outline is perfect, then so is the structure of your paper. The craft of legal writing becomes art through masterful use of structure and your finished outline is your best resource for fine-tuning structure.

Outline from Memory.

The mind is a wonderful sifting device. If you let your ideas ferment in your brain, the cream will rise to the top. So begin outlining from memory. Your best ideas are probably the ones that come to mind first.

Use Your Research Files As an Outline.

If you have filed your research carefully, your filing system can also serve as your outline. Arrange your files in a logical order and order the cases or statutes within each file. The resulting order will resemble the dreaded linear outline and involves only a fraction of the effort involved in creating a linear outline from scratch.

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I’ll post later about mind-mapping, creating a routine, and writing from the middle out. So stay tuned.

-Marie

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P.S. I did lots of thinking and outlining before I wrote my book, The Lawyer’s Essential Guide to Writing.

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2 Comments on “Think before you write, but begin writing before you have finished thinking.”

  1. 1 David said at 10:09 pm on November 5th, 2013:

    All good points, but as a professional writer myself I think that part of developing good habits is creating an environment where you’re able to write. Too many attorneys don’t have this oasis – they are too busy, they have too many distractions. (Not that I’m complaining, that’s why they hire me, after all!) For me, the routine that works is to plan what I’m going to write the day before, let it percolate in my mind, then hit it first thing the next morning. Crank up the music and churn it out.

  2. 2 mariebuckley said at 2:35 pm on November 6th, 2013:

    Very good point, David. And many famous authors says that writing for a few hours first thing in the morning is the key to their routine. But I admire anyone who can write with music cranking. I need dead silence!

    Thanks for commenting,

    Marie


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Avoid stuffy language and use familiar words instead.

Posted: January 24th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Editing, Plain English: Tips | Tags: , , , , , | No Comments »

Avoid stuffy, academic language. Use familiar, concrete words instead. Here are some plain English alternatives to some common stuffy phrases.

In all likelihood likely, probably
Let me offer an explanation of the cause. Let me explain why.
statement for professional services bill
Enclosed please find. . . . I have enclosed . . . .
presently soon, now
Pursuant to our conversation . . . . As we discussed . . . .
Per your request . . . . As you asked . . . .
I am of the mind that . . . . EEEEEEK! (There is no cure – just delete it.)
Signage sign
Of particular import to this issue . . . . In particular,
He was aware that . . . . He knew that . . . .
He shall have the ability to . . . . He can . . . .

So how stuffy are your words?

-Marie

P.S. My book, The Lawyer’s Essential Guide to Writing: Proven Tools and Techniques has hardly any stuffy words.

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Weave Adverse Case Law into Your Argument or Analysis

Posted: January 10th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Mission Critical Stuff, Talking About the Cases, The Argument or Analysis | Tags: , , , , , | No Comments »

Happy New Year! Let’s continue our series on how to present case law. We’ve talked about the lingo for discussing patterns in the case law. We’ve noted that skilled advocates don’t just list cases, they summarize a body of law and give a global picture of the research. And we’ve also talked about the three key issues in any case discussion. (Remember? Facts. Facts. Facts.) Now let’s talk about how to handle the elephant in the room—adverse case law. Your ethical obligations require that you mention it, but how do you talk about it without hurting your case?

Adverse case law rarely deserves a dedicated introductory sentence that flatly states its holding. If you break adverse case law into a separate section or paragraph, you may find yourself arguing the other side’s case, no matter how carefully you distinguish that law. Instead, weave opposing authority into your argument and present it offensively by using transitional words such as however and although.

For example, if you are arguing that the corporate veil should not be pierced, you should not begin your discussion of a case allowing a pierce by stating, In Jones v. Nasty Corp., the court pierced the corporate veil where Nasty Corp. was undercapitalized. Rather, explain that Although Jones v. Nasty Corp. allows a court to pierce the corporate veil where a corporation is undercapitalized, our client—unlike Nasty Corporation—is adequately capitalized. Couching troublesome authority in an although clause helps dilute its impact. For example, you might say that Although courts will pierce where the corporation has committed fraud, Client X never misrepresented its identity.

If you “wrap” your discussion of opposing authority with language that helps your case, you will meet your ethical obligations without losing control of your argument.

-Marie

P. S. My Book, The Lawyer’s Essential Guide to Writing contains many fascinating tips like this!

 

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The Three Key Questions in Any Case Discussion: Facts. Facts. Facts.

Posted: November 29th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Mission Critical Stuff, Talking About the Cases | Tags: , , , | No Comments »

Let’s continue our series on how to present case law. Last week, we talked about how skilled advocates don’t just list cases, they summarize a body of law and give a global picture of the research. Earlier, I suggested lingo for discussing patterns in the case law. Today, let’s talk about the three key issues in any case discussion. Facts. Facts. Facts.

Focus on the Factual Results of the Cases.

Judges and senior attorneys already know the law cold. Your job is to explain how the law plays out in the real world of people and facts. Therefore, focus on the facts and results in the cases, rather than vague statements of law.

For example, in its brief opposing certiorari in the Ten Commandments case, the ACLU summarized a huge body of First Amendment law in one masterful paragraph—a paragraph that focused on the results of the cases. There, the ACLU argued:

Where “a governmental intention to promote religion is clear,” Edwards v. Aguillard, 482 U.S. 578, 585 (1987), this Court has not hesitated to hold the challenged conduct unconstitutional. Thus, the Court has invalidated Louisiana’s creationism statute, Aguillard; struck down a Kentucky law requiring the posting of the Ten Commandments in public schools, Stone; struck down Alabama’s moment of silence statute, Wallace v. Jaffree, 472 U.S. 38 (1985); and held unconstitutional the mandated daily reading of Bible verses and the Lord’s Prayer in public schools, Abington Township Sch. Dist. v. Schempp, 374 U.S. (1963). Significantly, in each of these cases, this Court held that the challenged conduct was motivated by a religious purpose, and disregarded the government’s assertion of a sincere non-religious purpose.

Brief of ACLU in Opposition to Petition for Writ of Certiorari, McCreary v. ACLU, 545 U.S. 844 (2005) ( ACLU Brief, page 24-25).

Explain the Facts of Every Significant Case You Cite—Even If You Must Use a Parenthetical to Do So.

Never discuss a significant case without explaining its facts. In an ideal world, we would discuss all cases in prose and do away with cumbersome parentheticals. But parentheticals remain a useful, if imperfect, tool for preserving large bodies of research. They are the key to writing deep, substantive papers because they flesh out the factual and procedural context in which cases are decided and condense vast amounts of research into a small space.

So write a factual parenthetical every time you cite a case but don’t discuss that case in prose. (But you do not need factual parentheticals for cases that discuss boilerplate propositions of law, such as the standard of review or the burden of proof.) Although parentheticals admittedly slow the flow of your paper, the trained eye knows to peruse them quickly and their substantive benefit far outweighs the stylistic hiccup they create. Parentheticals are not perfect but using a parenthetical is better than losing the information.

Make Your Parentheticals Factual.

The job of a parenthetical—like the job of sentences—is to add new substantive information. Your parentheticals will add value if they explain what actually happened in the cases.

So if you have discussed the holding of the case in text, your parenthetical must do more than simply restate the holding. The best parentheticals summarize key facts about a case or the result, as in:

Treadway Companies, 638 F. 2d at 380 (refusing to require cooling-off period where tender offer occurred four months after corrective disclosure).

If needed, use parentheticals to explain why you cite a case, as in:

W. A. Krueger Co. v. Kirkpatrick, Pettis, Etc., 466 F. Supp. 800, 803 (D.C. Neb. 1979) (action for damages is limited to actual sellers and purchasers).

If you are using a parenthetical for multiple purposes, such as explaining facts and reasoning, you can keep each part of the parenthetical distinct by separating the two parts of the parenthetical with a semicolon, as in:

General Aircraft v. Lampert, 556 F.2d 90 (1st. Cir. 1977) (action by target corporation under Section 13D; finding irreparable harm would occur only if investors were allowed to continue activities without correcting schedule 13D).

Parentheticals should also explain the procedural result of the case, not simply the rule of law, as in:

General Aircraft v. Lampert, 556 F.2d 90 (1st. Cir. 1977) (requiring shareholder to amend its Schedule 13D and enjoining further acquisitions until amendment was filed).

If a case summarizes a body of law, give an overview of the law and cite to the summary case with a parenthetical stating (collecting cases). Citing to the case that gives the overview of authority saves you the need to cite the historical cases individually. A parenthetical simply stating (same) may be appropriate in a string citation.

Don’t be wimpy.

Don’t waste a parenthetical on simply quoting the part of the case that supports your previous prose sentence. The quote adds nothing new and suggests that you don’t trust your own prose paraphrase.

-Marie

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Coming next: The Art of Quoting Not Quoting.

P. S. from the Shameless Self-Promotion Department: My Book, The Lawyer’s Essential Guide to Writing: Proven Tools and Techniques (ABA, 2011) is chock full of tips like this and it would make a wonderful gift for your lawyer friends.

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Strong Verbs Add Zing to Your Writing

Posted: October 4th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Plain English: Tips | Tags: , , , , , | No Comments »

Colorful verbs convey images and add punch to your writing. Babies wail. Toddlers whine. Children fidget. Teenagers flirt. Hearts flutter. Later in life, traffic crawls, markets seize or melt and the right cars sip gas.

Colorful verbs can convey passion, outrage and a strong sense of right and wrong. In the Declaration of Independence, our founding fathers chose Biblical verbs to convey the depth of their oppression by the King of England: “He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.”  With verbs like that, who would doubt the justice of their cause? Or consider the Gettysburg address, in which Lincoln lamented that “we cannot dedicate . . . we cannot consecrate . . . we cannot hallow . . . this ground.”

Many of your favorite childhood friends also depended on strong verbs. Remember when the wild things “roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes?” Of course you remember. You remember so well that I don’t need to remind you that this passage comes from Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. Strong verbs cement themselves in your memory.

And there are descriptive verbs for every phase in your life, including your years practicing law. Legislation may falter in the House or sail through Congress. Plaintiffs malinger. Defendants plead. Witnesses mumble, squirm, and duck questions. Other questions elicit responses. Courts admonish. Companies don’t simply fail to disclose losses. They hide those losses. And those losses then propel companies into dangerous financial positions, where they teeter on the verge of bankruptcy.

Colorful verbs can bring passion to judicial opinions, as well. Consider Justice Stevens’s dissent in Citizens United. There, Stevens lamented that “the majority blazes through our precedents. . . .”  Citizens United v. Federal Election Com’n, 130 S. Ct. 876, 930 (2010) (Stevens dissenting).

Both life and the law happen in color so never settle for black and white verbs.

P.S. My book contains lots of strong verbs!

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The First Step of Deep Editing: Cleaning Up Sentences

Posted: June 13th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Editing | Tags: , , , | No Comments »

Rewriting ripens what you’ve written.

—Duane Alan Hahn

Proofreading and editing are different skills. Proofreading is the tedious, scientific task of making your paper error free. I’ve posted earlier about proofreading, including Eight Steps for Proofreading.

But let’s talk now about the art of editing. Deep editing is part of the art of writing. It is the kind of editing that a good writing coach might do for you and the kind that so many of us avoid. Deep editing requires a systematic attack on your paper and an objective eye. While you must still keep your writing hat on, you must approach your writing as if you were a reader—or a plastic surgeon. Deep editing is precise, surgical work and it requires a finely tuned aesthetic sense and a good ear.

Block Out Time for Self-Editing

First, carve out  time for rigorous self-editing. Editing is the most important part of writing, so you are cheating yourself if you don’t build in time for editing. Professional writers are neurotic about self-editing, so they always leave time for editing. And editing will always take more time than you might think, so save a generous block of time.

Edit with a Vengeance

Approach your paper as if you were a slightly deranged reader with a knife in hand. Deep editing is driven by substance and it requires you to review for structure, substance, sound, readability, appeal, clarity, and integrity.

Review Your Paper in Print Preview

You cannot edit effectively unless you can see what your work will look like to your reader. Edit at least once in hard copy. If you refuse to print for environmental reasons, then at least review your paper in Print Preview or Full Screen Reading View.

Say Your Sentences Aloud

At this first stage of self-editing, your job is to focus on sentences and to cure clutter and check for plain English. Say each sentence aloud—if only in your head—to edit for plain English and to cure clutter and grammatical errors. If you are smart enough to make it through law school, the grammatical rules of modern English are embedded in your brain and ear. Saying your sentences aloud is the only tool an educated writer needs for effective sentence-level editing.

So read through your paper sentence by sentence and rely on your well-trained and unforgiving ear to weed out clutter and confusion. Click here for more tips on plain English editing.

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Once you have finished sentence-level editing, you can begin editing for structure. I’ll post soon about structural editing, so stay tuned!

-Marie

P. S. My Book contains many more tips on writing.

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Stuck? Tips for Overcoming Writer’s Block

Posted: May 16th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Efficient Work Habits | Tags: , , , , , | No Comments »

In the past few posts, we’ve talked about the good work habits that lead to fast, efficient writing. You know that you should work on a big, clean screen and avoid multitasking so that you can find the “flow.”  You know that you should have a plan before you start writing. In this post, let’s talk about techniques for fending off writer’s block.

Create a Routine.

You will write more easily if you have a consistent routine. Do you need morning sun to charge your brain? Set aside morning time for writing. Does a messy desk sap your focus? Clean your desk. Can’t function without caffeine? Pour that coffee. If you have a consistent routine that works for you, use that routine to transition to writing mode quickly.

Think with Your Hands.

Stuck? Try thinking by hand on a blank unlined sheet of paper. (If you are a techie, draw on an iPad or other device.) Working with your hands, rather than on your computer, will force you to think on the right side of your brain. You’ll step outside a linear mode of thinking and see new connections between ideas.

Try to get your project on one page—a “work page” or a mind map. If you can’t get your thoughts down to one page, you have not yet identified your major themes and you don’t understand your project. Think of your work page as a loose master plan for your paper or the top layer of your writing. It should be an overview of your big ideas and a catalyst for the writing process, rather than a linear outline of your paper. And let your work page or mind map evolve as your write. Your goal is to make notes, rather than take notes.

Find a Good Model.

Before you begin writing, find a good form or model to work from. If you are writing for a colleague, find a similar paper written by that person. Working from a form isn’t cheating. It’s efficient and smart. Your firm wants you to build on forms and models that have already been vetted and have an official seal of approval. Indeed, most law offices compile databases of models just for this purpose.

Write in Layers by Working from the Middle Out.

Writer’s block often begins with a misguided effort to write in a linear fashion, beginning at Point A and proceeding in an unbroken line to Point Z. But the process of writing is different than the process of reading. Although we want our readers to zip seamlessly through a paper in an unbroken line, legal argument—like Rome—is built in layers. Therefore, you may want to build your writing in layers, as well.

The “lead” sections of your paper are where you add the most value, but they are also the most difficult sections to write. So take shortcuts by writing the easier middle sections first because they are often straightforward case discussions. Layer on your top layers of thought—your opening, your headings, and your topic sentences—after you have written the easier middle sections.

  • Write pods or cells first. Every topic has a few easy and obvious arguments that require only two or three sentences. Capture those sentences in small pods or cells. These pods or cells are the middle of your paragraphs. And you can write these pods as you research. You may even want to jot down these pods directly on the case before you file it. (But if you do paste in pods from cases, be sure to edit your final paper carefully so that it reads like a deep, thoughtful analysis of the case law, rather than a cut-and-paste exercise.)
  •  Label each pod with a topic sentence. Next, determine the purpose of each pod. Ask yourself why you grouped certain cases together. The answer to that question becomes the opening sentence to your paragraph. Simply “label” each pod—and turn it into a paragraph—by “wrapping” it with your topic sentence.
  •  Organize the paragraphs. Move and group paragraphs to find a coherent order. Work from general to specific, using successive paragraphs to narrow concepts down.
  •  Layer on headings. After you have turned your pods into paragraphs and grouped paragraphs together, “wrap” those paragraph groups with substantive headings that explain why you grouped those paragraphs in one section.
  •  Wrap your paper with your opening. Next, “wrap” the body of the paper with an opening that includes the factual background, the issue (if it’s not clear from the facts), and your conclusion.
  •  Make recommendations. Finally, step back and tell your reader what to do next.

Or Write the Ending First.

Or write your concluding Recommendations section first. It will give you a goal to work toward.

Get Your First Draft on Paper Quickly.

Type your first draft as quickly as possible. Don’t fuss over details yet. Simply aim to create a working document.

Some writers try to write their first draft slowly, aiming for a more finished first product. Although slow drafting is not efficient for professional writing, in which speed and efficiency are so important, common techniques for “slow” writing include writing in longhand or writing with the less dominant hand. Frankly, I don’t recommend either technique.

Talk to Yourself As You Write.

As you write, write notes to yourself to save your ideas for revisions or additions. (Insert your thoughts as comments in Track Changes, but be sure to scrub those comments before finalizing the draft.) If you write your comments directly on text, include a character before the comment so that you can search for and delete the comments from the final paper. (I sometimes use a double bracket, like this [].)

Find the Gold.

If you use your first draft as a tool to “get it all down” or if you find yourself editing windy writing from a colleague, begin by separating the good from the bad. Work quickly through the paper, starring only those “Aha!” concepts that strike you as pivotal. Mark extraneous sentences with an X in the margin. Mark salvageable material with a question mark. Then rework the paper around those few concepts that you have starred.

Write Directly from Your Research Files.

An advocate’s job is to persuade a court that there is precedent for an argument, so precedent is the best place to start. Review your research files as you write. Build on the arguments and language you have already highlighted and labeled in the copied cases. Review the cases for factual analogies and focus on those facts as you write.

Save Deleted Material.

As you write, save deleted material to the clipboard and label it as deleted material. When you have finished writing, copy the deleted material into a separate document. You never know when you may want to retrieve your brilliant, but discarded, sentences.

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On your mark! Get set! Write!

P.S. These posts (and more tips) are collected in My Book.

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More Good Writing Habits: Think. Plan. Write. Think More. Plan more. Rewrite.

Posted: May 9th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Efficient Work Habits | Tags: , , , , , | No Comments »

In the past few posts, we’ve talked about habits that lead to efficient writing, such as working on a Big Clean Screen and Finding the Flow. Today, let’s dig deeper and focus on the importance of planning before you write and refining that plan while you write. Here goes.

Think First. Write Later.

Word-processing software is irresistible. It can seduce you to start writing before you have begun thinking. Practice safe writing. Put your major thoughts in place before you begin writing. At the very least, collect your thoughts on a single, scribbled work page or a mind map. (I’ll talk more about mind mapping in later posts, but it’s the same technique you learned in junior high school.)

But Begin Writing Before You Have Finished Thinking.

You will learn about your topic simply by writing about it. So, while you must have some plan in place before you begin writing, that plan will change as you write. Let it change. If you stay flexible and open to new ideas while you write, your paper will become deeper and more relevant. And if you wait to start writing until you have finished thinking, you may never start writing at all.

Have a Plan.

But you must have some plan in place before you begin—whether it is a scribbled work page or a detailed, numbered outline. For example, before William Langiewische wrote his 70,000 word article, “American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center,” in The Atlantic Monthly (July and August, 2002)—the longest magazine article ever published—he created a handwritten flow chart taking up several feet of butcher paper. (Langiewische’s butcher-paper outline is reproduced in this Columbia Journalism Article.)

Outline As You Go.

Outlining works. It is a flexible, efficient tool for organizing your thoughts. But many lawyers avoid outlining, believing it requires them to have a global vision of their paper before they write.

Instead, outline in piecemeal fashion while you write. Begin with the most obvious themes: What is your most important case or line of cases? What headings summarize those cases? Then work through your research, case by case, creating new headings and plugging cases into existing headings.

If you approach outlining as a tool, rather than a rigid guideline, outlining will give you control over your writing because it will keep you focused on the big picture. Again, the goal is to have a perfected outline in place by the time you finish writing.

Once you have finished writing and your outline is complete, use that outline as the master key for proofing the structure of your paper. If the outline is perfect, then so is the structure of your paper. The craft of legal writing becomes art through masterful use of structure, so your finished outline is your best resource for fine-tuning structure.

Outline from Memory.

The mind is a wonderful sifting device. If you let your ideas ferment in your brain, the cream will rise to the top. So begin outlining from memory. Your best ideas are probably the ones that come to mind first.

Use Your Research Files As an Outline.

If you have filed your research carefully, those files can also serve as your outline. Keep a careful filing system, with files for major topics and sub-files for lesser topics. Arrange the files in a logical order and order the cases or statutes within each file, as well. The resulting order will resemble the dreaded linear outline and involves only a fraction of the effort involved in creating a linear outline from scratch.

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Next, we’ll talk about thinking with your hands, writing in layers, and talking to yourself while you write. (It helps to be a little bit crazy.) Stay tuned.

P.S. Chapter 12 of  My book covers The Process of Writing and Overcoming Writer’s Block in more detail.

 

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His or Her? Avoid the Gender Minefield by Using Plurals.

Posted: April 24th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Grammar, Punctuation, and Usage, Plain English: Tips | Tags: , , | No Comments »

It’s hard isn’t it? As lawyers, we don’t always know the gender of the person we are writing about or we are writing about abstract issues that could apply to anyone—male or female. His sounds sexist and it is inaccurate where you don’t know the gender. Her sounds a little too political. His or Her is more accurate than either word alone, but it still sounds awkward and technical.

You can avoid the gender minefield by using plurals. Rewrite A student may leave his or her books on the tables as Students may leave their books on the tables.

And never use his/her. His/her fails the test for plain English because it is not even pronounceable.

In a longer work, such as a book, you can always turn to the marvelous Dr. Spock for an answer. In his classic book, Baby and Child Care, Dr. Spock talked about his abstract babies by alternating between his and her. It worked in 1946 and it is still a good technique. (Dr. Spock introduced each abstract baby, by saying “Let’s say it’s a boy (or a girl).”  That introduction that would not be necessary today, since we are accustomed to thinking across genders.)

 

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Avoid Restating the Other Side’s Argument

Posted: March 29th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Mission Critical Stuff, Talking About the Cases | Tags: , , , , | No Comments »

Don’t fall into the trap of restating the other side’s argument as a prelude to attacking that argument. A true advocate never dedicates a sentence to explaining the opponents’ position.

For example, if the issue is whether your client has defrauded customers, don’t dedicate a sentence to the other side’s argument that “Courts will pierce the corporate veil where the corporation has defrauded its customers.” Instead, restate the argument from your client’s angle: “The courts will not allow a pierce where a corporation is adequately capitalized unless there are clear markers of fraud.” Or work opposing authority into an “although” clause to avoid dedicating a whole sentence to discussing that authority. For example, say “Although courts have pierced the veil where corporations have defrauded their customers, our clients never acted fraudulently.

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Make your opponents do their own work. Don’t do it for them.



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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.

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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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