Nutshell Writing Tips: Begin with the Background Story

Posted: May 1st, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Mission Critical Stuff, Nutshell Tips, Story or Facts | 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 Four: Begin with the Background Story

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.)

   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.


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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Skip the facts. Tell a story instead.

Posted: May 17th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Story or Facts | 1 Comment »

The universe is made up of stories, not of atoms.

—Muriel Rukeyser

Every case begins with a story—the story of who the parties are, what brought them together and what went wrong. Stories win cases, not lists of facts or citations. Why? Because story is the context in which facts happen. Stories have emotional appeal. We remember stories but we forget facts. Therefore, you are missing an opportunity if you just list facts without telling the story first.

In legal writing, the story always turns on the parties. Who are the players? How do they know each other? What went wrong? Who did what to whom? Your job is to look beyond facts and data to find that bigger story. And while most legal issues may ultimately turn on narrow facts, those facts will be lifeless and forgettable if you have not wrapped them in the larger context of a story.

Put the Story First.

Where do you tell your story in legal writing? It’s all about the story so the story always goes first—in the opening or the introduction. Again, who are the parties? What brought them together? What went wrong? Even if your paper requires a detailed statement of facts, the first paragraph should simply tell the background story. Save the gory details for later.

Keep the Story Short.

The story or background facts rarely require more than a few sentences.  Even a colleague who admonishes you to “skip the facts” will not object to two or three sentences explaining the context in which an issue arises.

Write for the Next Person to Pick Up the File.

If your reader knows your topic, you need not restate every fact. However, your target reader is not just the attorney who asked you to write the paper. You must also write for the next person who might review the file—and who may not know the background of your case. Two or three sentences that explain the background story give your work context and perspective and make your work useful for other lawyers researching the same topic later. A new reader should be able to understand your paper without needing to go back to the case file for basic background information. (Similarly, you need not explain general legal principles or statutes if your reader already knows the relevant law, although you may want to paraphrase the law for later readers.)


Stay tuned for later posts in which we will talk about how to tell a human story.

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

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One Comment on “Skip the facts. Tell a story instead.”

  1. 1 A Lawyer's Guide to Writing » Blog Archive Editing legal writing said at 6:08 pm on November 15th, 2012:

    […] it begin by explaining the background story in two or three sentences? (Who are the players? How do they know each other? What went […]

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Trouble! Conflict! Challenge!

Posted: January 9th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Story or Facts | No Comments »

One of the most common tidbits that successful writers pass on to the wannabees is to get your character in trouble–big trouble–and to keep them in trouble. Why? Because conflict and challenge make for good stories.

So how lucky are we lawyers? We don’t have to get our characters in trouble. They are usually already in trouble when they come to us. Conflict? It comes built into our cases. The adversarial character? Just look on the other side of the “v.”

And that is yet another reason why every legal paper should focus on the facts–the “story” behind the case that involves real human beings (well, sometimes  real corporations), with real problems that need real answers. Papers that focus on only abstract legal theory miss the chance to tell the real story that gives context to the legal question.

So do your papers tell a “story?”

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