September 1, 2014

Law Practice Tip #8: Make things easier to understand

“No one will ever complain about your writing making something easier to understand.”

That’s how you should try to write, whether its for a partner, a judge, or your client. Simple, clean, articulate, and careful. No one has to read what you write, and it doesn’t take much to distract the reader to something else. Keep their attention. Each sentence should draw the reader further into the story. Er, the brief.

Ever feel like the writer of the brief you just read  (or worse, wrote) was purposely making things more difficult than they were? Calvin and Hobbes aside, Today’s practice tip comes from Tad Radford, former Guardian science editor, letters editor, arts editor and literary editor. He lays down the “25 Commandments,” ostensibly for journalists, but just as applicable for legal writers (or any writers, for that matter).

Some of my favorites:

5. Here is a thing to carve in pokerwork and hang over your typewriter. “No one will ever complain because you have made something too easy to understand.”

15. Words have meanings. Respect those meanings. Get radical and look them up in the dictionary, find out where they have been. Then use them properly. Don’t flaunt authority by flouting your ignorance. Don’t whatever you do go down a hard road to hoe, without asking yourself how you would hoe a road. Or for that matter, a roe.

For the legal writer, go order a copy of Black’s Law Dictionary andDictionary of Modern Legal Usage. They’ll strengthen your vocabulary and deepen your abilities, not to mention complement your writing.

19. Beware of long and preposterous words. Beware of jargon. If you are a science writer this is doubly important. If you are a science writer, you occasionally have to bandy words that no ordinary human ever uses, like phenotype, mitochondrion, cosmic inflation, Gaussian distribution and isostasy. So you really don’t want to be effulgent or felicitous as well. You could just try being bright and happy.

A close cousin to #19 is #20:

20. English is better than Latin. You don’t exterminate, you kill. You don’t salivate, you drool. You don’t conflagrate, you burn. Moses did not say to Pharaoh: “The consequence of non-release of one particular subject ethnic population could result ultimately in some kind of algal manifestation in the main river basin, with unforeseen outcomes for flora and fauna, not excluding consumer services.” He said “the waters which are in the river … shall be turned to blood, and the fish that is in the river shall die, and the river shall stink.”

If there is one thing I never grow tired of laughing at is lawyers’ over-use, or abuse, of Latin. Heck, or by non-lawyers with delusions of grandeur.  It rarely strengthens an argument and it definitely doesn’t make you sound smarter.

That’s not to say there are not any times when it’s appropriate, but they are few and far between. The few times that it is actually useful are when the phrase has entered the English lexicon as a phrase commonly understood (or at least among lawyers). For example: the phrase ‘habeas corpus.’ It doesn’t actually help to say “you have to have the body”  when we all know that it has a specific legal meaning, specifically bringing a  prisoner before a court to ensure that their detention is not illegal.  You just say “a habeas corpus petition” or a “writ of habeas corpus.” (Or Great Writ, if you really want to sound pretentious.)

So, check your Latin at the door and say what you mean–in English, the language we all speak. Don’t say ‘sub judice’ when you can just say “before the court.”

My favorite of Radford’s writing commandments is on expanding your abilities through reading:

22. Read. Read lots of different things. Read the King James Bible, and Dickens, and poems by Shelley, and Marvel Comics and thrillers by Chester Himes and Dashiell Hammett. Look at the astonishing things you can do with words. Note the way they can conjure up whole worlds in the space of half a page.

Amen. I especially like Dashiel Hammett. And no one plays a Dasheill Hammett character like Humphrey Bogart. Pick up a copy of “The Maltese Falcon” when you get a chance. “It’s the stuff dreams are made of.”

Find Radford’s full “manifesto for the simple scribe” here.

(h/t Guardian)

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