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 good ideas. Any good prose stylist frets about the quality of the ideas being expressed. Second, you want to express your ideas as concisely as possible—without wasted words. No repetitions; no superfluities. Third, you need to master the technique of phrasing, with smooth transitions and sentences that end with punch. Allied to this point is that you want a varied vocabulary. You don’t just say again and again that Jackson’s filing was untimely, but once or twice you might say it was late or even tardy. You want your style to be piquant, never boring. (But if you’ve chosen to call him Jackson, he’s invariably “Jackson”—never “Plaintiff” or “Third-Party Defendant” or “Bill.” Variable references just confuse.)

Keeping your reader interested may well be the most important element of written advocacy: boring briefs don’t get read. As Gustave Flaubert once said, “Every style is good except that which bores.”

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