Note: This post originally appeared as a guest post on the now-defunct Happy Go Legal blog under the title “Lawyers – write what you mean and mean what you write,” but the message is as relevant today as it was then.
As someone with a master’s degree in English, I consider myself a pretty smart guy, especially in the “words” department, so you can imagine how frustrating it is when I have trouble understanding something that someone has written.
Case in point: Recently, proofreading an article written by an attorney nearly gave me a heart attack. Between legal jargon, seemingly interminable phrases and sentences, archaic words, minute and irrelevant details, and a serpentine flow of ideas and concepts, I had to re-read several sections two or three times before they made any sense. (For context, it’s important to note that this article was written for a decidedly “non-legal” audience.)
The process was excruciating, but I’d be lying if I said it was at all surprising.
Some of the most intelligent (even brilliant), highly educated, well-spoken people I know have the hardest time with writing. It’s not that they can’t write; it’s more like there’s a disconnect between what they’re thinking and their written expression of those thoughts. I’ve always struggled with anything beyond basic math and science, so don’t think I’m judging anyone.
One reason for my struggles is that most of the legal writing I’ve read seems unnecessarily long-winded. I’m pretty sure you could take just about any legal document, cut out at least half the words, and it would still say all that needed to be said. (I’m reminded of the freshman English students I taught in grad school who would oversaturate their papers with adjectives – “very” was a popular one – just to meet my minimum length requirement).
Don’t think for a moment that I’m trying to change the way people in the legal community communicate with each other. Every industry is entitled to its “inside baseball” vocabulary and ways of doing things. I’m looking more at the way attorneys, judges, etc., communicate with those of us who don’t have law degrees.
Good writing can earn respect; bad writing – especially when it’s difficult to read – can leave a bad impression about the writer. And while I don’t believe this, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the existing perception that lawyers intentionally write documents that are almost incomprehensible to “the masses” because they don’t want us to grasp the full meaning of what they’re saying.
On the subject of “expressing and not for preventing or concealing thought,” I’ll defer to a much more talented and accomplished writer. In his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language,” English author George Orwell presented the following five rules for clear, concise, effective writing:
- Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it’s possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
I’d like to add my voice to Orwell’s, but since I’m not much for rules, let’s call these guidelines, which apply to writing or conversation in general.
- Know your audience
- Speak their language
- Keep it simple
- Keep it brief
As I think about it, I may be guilty of breaking that last rule, since I could probably sum up this entire piece in one sentence: When you’re dealing with someone outside the legal profession, channel Ben Matlock.
(Image courtesy of duhaime.org)