Words matter: Developing your writing skills

  • June 27, 2018
  • Ann Macaulay

Chances are good that John Grisham wrote more as a lawyer than he’s ever done as a professional writer.

From emails to briefs to client letters, lawyers can often write hundreds of pages a week, says Cheryl Stephens, a Vancouver educator, trainer and consultant in communication, social marketing and plain language. This is true even though some lawyers don’t even understand basic grammar rules, she says – it’s just assumed that they can write by the time they get to law school.

And most lawyers think they can write even though they may never have taken a writing course. “They do not have professional-level skills and they don’t want to admit to anybody that they suspect they have weaknesses in their writing,” Stephens says.

You don’t need to write like a best-selling author, but it is important that you be able to communicate clearly, with clients, colleagues and with the courts. Here are some tips:

Write clearly

Writing should be clear and simple, well-laid-out with bullet points and headings. Busy people will scan a document to decide whether to pay more attention to it. If there’s no clear message up front, most will decide they’re not interested. “It’s got to look organized because people decide to read based on the visual impression,” says Stephens.

All writing, even emails, should provide context and be professional, civil and organized. Avoid legalese, especially with clients. Take time to think about the person at the receiving end of a message and what information they need. The email’s subject line should inform the reader whether they even need to bother opening it.

Take time to reread and edit. Review it, run it through spelling and grammar checkers. If it’s an important document, there should always be a second set of eyes on it, says Stephens, who points out, “we don’t see our own mistakes.”

Stephens recommends tools such as Microsoft Word’s grammar checker or the Hemingway app, which highlights lengthy, complicated sentences and instances of the passive voice. She also suggests reading advice online. “Start following a couple of blogs of people who talk about the best way to deliver legal information.”

Present information effectively

Typographical and grammatical errors, or just plain sloppiness, “are the things that drive people crazy,” says former Boston litigator Marie Buckley, who wrote The Lawyer’s Essential Guide to Writing and currently coaches lawyers on writing. “But just fixing those is not going to drive excellence in legal writing or in any type of writing.” The more important issue is to present information effectively.

Buckley strongly believes that good writing is a skill all lawyers can learn. “If you’re smart enough to pass the Bar exam, you’re smart enough to write a coherent paper or letter or whatever is asked of you. I think we owe that to our clients.”

There are three guiding principles that apply to any type of expository writing, says Buckley. “First, use plain English, second, lead from the top and third, tell your reader what to do next.” Plain English does not mean simple English, she adds, “so you’re entitled to use your massive vocabulary, but use it to achieve precision and nuance and not simply to show off that you can pass an advanced vocabulary test.” The test for plain English is very straightforward, she adds. “It’s ‘would you use a word or phrase in conversation with a colleague?’ ”

Writing should be a little more formal than spoken language but still sound conversational. “Our clients speak the language of modern business and we should be speaking that language too,” says Buckley.

Simplify sentences, use strong verbs, cut out clutter, “and try most of all to be confident in your writing,” says Buckley. She has seen young lawyers do research and write that they could find no cases on point, which makes it sound as if they didn’t do enough research and aren’t confident about their results. Instead, they should phrase it as “no reported cases.” “It’s a much more confident way of stating the same proposition.”

Lead from the top

Ideally, there are three parts to every document: an opening, a body and a closing and everything in it should be summed up in the first paragraph. “The most important thing that needs to go in the opening is your conclusion and why you reached that conclusion,” says Buckley.

Heads and subheads help organize a document and give readers access to particular parts of a paper they are interested in. But they also allow people to opt out of parts that don’t interest them, says Buckley, which is “one of the kindest things we can do for our readers.”

Buckley encourages her students to spend as much time as possible between writing the first draft and beginning to edit. “When you go back to the paper, you’re reading it not as a writer but as an editor and things will leap out at you.”

A firm’s senior lawyers can help younger lawyers by providing feedback on their writing in a coherent, positive and constructive way. “Somebody can certainly sit down with a junior person before they write a memo and hash through the issues a little bit and maybe get them going on what the outline and the structure of the paper might look like,” says Buckley. “They’ll get a better product back at the end if they take the time to do that up front.”

Writing is the best tool young lawyers can use to advocate for themselves and start to build their reputations, says Buckley. “It shows how they think and how they present information.” Since it’s a learnable skill, it should be a major focus, she adds. “I like to see young people thinking of writing not as a hurdle they have to cross but as something they can master that might really help them distinguish themselves.”

Tips to become a better writer

  • Identify your audience and your purpose
  • Choose words that suit the reader
  • Use plain language and avoid legalese, jokes, jargon and Latin phrases
  • Cut unnecessary words
  • Use the active voice
  • Set aside time to edit
  • Use free online editing tools
  • Ask someone else to edit important documents
  • Use subheads to make documents easier to read
  • Take a writing course

Ann Macaulay is a frequent contributor to CBA PracticeLink.