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The power of brevity

The power of brevity

Anthony Wright

Learning to write in a clear, direct style can help lawyers make their point more effectively, writes Anthony Wright.

The art of using as few words as necessary – writing succinctly – is not something lawyers are known for.

Ever read a US contract? If so, I’m sure you’ve been frustrated by how hard it is to decipher. Sentences the size of paragraphs, inadequate headings, confusing language and way too many words – to put it mildly.

Rather than confuse the reader, lawyers would do well to take a little advice from Ernest Hemingway, whose aim was ‘to put down on paper what he saw and felt in the best and simplest way’. As a lawyer, I’ve adapted this a little and always try to put down on paper the correct information in the most digestible and concise way.

No matter the audience – be it another lawyer, a business manager, or a client – you should make the assumption that people are time poor. Law often only plays a minor role in a company’s commercial success, so be concise and get to the point quickly, simply and correctly.

Understandably, communicating complex concepts clearly and concisely can be tricky. Having recently attempted to cut a 1,000-word document down to 500 words myself, I can attest that it’s time consuming to make “25 words do the work of 50”, to quote Wilson Follett. However, being concise is an art that once learnt will serve you and your clients well.

A client must be able to easily understand you to trust and respect your advice. You may be considered an expert in the industry, but if they can’t understand you and the value you bring, it's unlikely they'll ask for your help again.

So let’s get down to business. Below are some useful tips to ensure you always write succinctly.

Write for your audience

Tailor your words to the reader. Are you speaking to another lawyer, a business professional or a client with no legal knowledge? Do they require a short answer, a formal document, or an explanation of your reasoning?

Plan what you are going to say

What are you trying to achieve in this piece of writing? You should know this before you begin. No one wants to read your stream of consciousness, nor do they have time to. Think about what you want to say and write it in a clear, logical order so that readers can scan, understand and act.

Be concise

The fewer words, the better. Omitting unnecessary words helps clarify the meaning and adds impact.

Some examples include:

Used for evidentiary purposes = Used as evidence
In spite of the fact that = Despite
Due to the fact that = Because

Avoid acronyms and legal jargon

Legal phrases can make your writing jarring and may cause the reader to lose interest or relegate it to the ‘too hard’ basket. Unless it’s absolutely necessary, ditch legal jargon in favour of clear, simple words. Likewise, acronyms that may be obvious to you won’t necessarily be familiar to your reader. Even if you’re writing for someone in the same industry, you can’t presume they won’t pass your work on to someone else for a second opinion and that the person will know that XXN means cross examination. For that matter, remember that some clients may not know the meaning of cross-examination either.

Use an active voice

Avoid overusing a passive voice as this diminishes clarity and makes sentences longer. Using an active voice makes your writing more powerful and convincing.

Consider this passive sentence: “It is believed that the jury needs to reach a decision”. An active version reads: “The jury needs to make a decision”.

Using the Flesch readability formula is a helpful way to check how passive your writing is (you want this to sit at zero per cent) and how readable it is. The Flesch readability formula is available through Microsoft Word and there are lots of free online Flesch calculators you can use by simply copying and pasting your text.

Anthony Wright is the managing principal at lexvoco

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