LawProse Lesson #275: Keeping the reader’s interest level high.

Some years ago, a federal appellate judge I interviewed said: “The brief had better have something interesting to say after page 20. If it doesn’t, my eyes start glazing over, and I’ll put it down.” It’s true of any piece of writing—and critical to effective advocacy: to have any hope of persuading your reader, you must find a way of sustaining interest.

There are three primary ways of doing this. First, you want to be sure that you have plenty of ...

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LawProse Lesson #274: Introducing quotations with an effective lead-in.

After you’ve chosen the perfect quotation from a case, statute, treatise, etc.—and deftly cut it to 49 or fewer words (as we discussed in Lesson # 273)—it’s time to tailor a lead-in that will effectively weave the quotation into the text. Some lawyers drop quotations into the text with no introduction at all. Others improve that slightly by leading in with phrases such as: the court stated as follows:, or according to a noted expert:, or the statute reads ...

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LawProse Lesson #273: How to reduce your block quotations (redux)

The Bluebook (Rule 5.1(a)(i)) requires that all quotations exceeding 49 words must be set off from the text as “block quotations.” In lawyers’ briefs, these are usually single spaced, unlike the rest of the text. In journals and books, block quotations are commonly set in a smaller typeset. All this is well known, as is the fact that block quotations are thought to be “the bane of many a brief and the affliction of many an appellate judge.” (Ben W. ...

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LawProse Lesson #272: Ending your sentences with punch.

Last week, we addressed the legal writer’s bad habit of emphasizing words by using unsightly and outdated underlining. The better substitute for highlighting specific words or short phrases is italics. Yet there’s a syntactic practice that can be even more effective and forceful: ending your sentences emphatically. Skilled writers know that the most emphatic position in a sentence is not at the beginning—but at the end. A well-written sentence is a crescendo, its final word or phrase being the climax.

With ...

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LawProse Lesson #271: Ban underlining in your legal documents.

Lawyers have spent decades trying to achieve emphasis in legal documents by underlining. It’s well past time to stop. Underlining is an unsightly relic from the typewriter era, when italics weren’t usually available. With today’s word processors, there’s no reason to use it—at least not 99% of the time.

If you’ve read documents with underlined text, you know the problem. Underlining impairs legibility: it obscures some letters and punctuation (esp. the lowercase letters g, j, p, q, y, and the comma ...

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LawProse Lesson #270: A refresher on appositives.

An appositive is a noun or noun phrase that further describes or identifies another noun or noun phrase that immediately precedes it. Take this sentence: “Travis Barnhill, the company’s CEO, spoke to the media about the merger.” The phrase the company’s CEO is an appositive of the proper noun Travis Barnhill. Or this: “The dog with the broken leg, Wookie, belonged to the office manager.” Wookie further identifies, by name, the dog with the broken leg.

There are two types of ...

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LawProse Lesson #269: Average sentence length.

Average sentence length.

What’s recommended? An average sentence length of 20 words. That doesn’t mean that every sentence needs to be 20 words long. You want some longer sentences (well put together, naturally) and some shorter ones (perhaps two or three words). But your average ought to be around 20. John Trimble, the renowned University of Texas English professor, advises: “As a rule of thumb, whenever you’ve written three longish sentences in a row, make your fourth a short one. And ...

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LawProse Lesson #268: The two-word Latinism making a solid abbreviation.

Can you think of a common two-word Latin phrase that gets solidified in its abbreviated form? You might cite per centum (per 100) vs. percent—and that’s a fair answer. But perhaps the strangest is et cetera, which becomes etc. (= and other things). The old-fashioned form of it, predominant from 1700 to 1850, is &c. (using an ampersand), which originated as a ligature of et. Today it’s almost invariably etc.

Five other things about etc.

First, it’s silly to think the term ...

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LawProse Lesson #267: Law of the case.

The phrase law of the case is often misunderstood. Properly, it denotes a common-law doctrine that applies most often to cases that have been appealed. When an appellate court makes a final decision in a case, that decision is binding in a later appeal after remand. The decision becomes the law of that case.

For example, a litigant may appeal two of a trial court’s final decisions: to exclude a piece of evidence and to give the jury an improper instruction. ...

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LawProse Lesson #266: The plague of block quotations

What are the primary hallmarks of lazy, mediocre (or worse) legal writers? Pages filled with citations and block quotations. Today we’ll focus just on the latter. The Bluebook says that any quotation of more than 50 words must be set off in a block. The Chicago Manual of Style suggests that a quotation of 100 words or more (at least six to eight lines of text) should be set off. This standard serves the purpose of not having readers feel ...

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LawProse Lesson #265: Intelligibility vs. Credibility.

People often ask why it matters what precise word you use (militate vs. mitigate, or masterly vs. masterful) as long as readers or listeners understand what you mean. If there’s no real confusion, they say, why should we get persnickety about words?

This view is premised on the pragmatic idea that language is all about communication, and that if the basic message gets through, then the mission has been accomplished. But it fails to account for all that you communicate every ...

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LawProse Lesson #264: The chronology of relevant events.

What’s the most important step in writing a statement of facts? It’s the creation of a chronology of relevant events—a document that lists, day by day and time by time, every important occurrence bearing on the interactions between parties.

Lawyers often ask clients to prepare such a chronology as a starting point. Although the quality varies according to the client’s skill and knowledge, this timeline can be an excellent exercise for the client to understand precisely what has happened.

It helps you, ...

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