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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