LawProse Lesson #294: Shorthand names

What’s in a Name (or Label or Designation)?

In the past few decades, an unfortunate habit has formed within a substantial segment of lawyerdom: giving parties alternative shorthand names. A brief-writer will mention Harold Reynolds and then add, parenthetically, “(Reynolds or Plaintiff)”; a contract-drafter, in a preamble, will write “SFX Corporation” and then add, parenthetically, “(SFX or Company).” It’s a ludicrous practice that we must unite to stamp out.

The problem is that after the audience starts reading a story about Reynolds, ...

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LawProse Lesson #293: Word-Swapping

The English-language has so many homophones (sound-alike words) and near-homophones that it’s hard for people to keep them straight. Let me illustrate with a fictitious paragraph:

You know I have a photogenic memory. After Easter observations a couple of years ago, I was at the church bizarre when I overheard someone making laudable remarks about my son, who’d been recouping from mononucleosis. Although I’d become inhered to such praise, the man was speaking so voraciously that it was embarrassing. I had ...

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LawProse Lesson #292: A secret for good personal notes.

Write “you”-centered notes, not “I”-centered notes. In any short personal letter, try to ensure that “you” and “your” predominate over “I,” “me,” and “mine.” (Think of the sarcasm of the Beatles’ song “I Me Mine”—about self-centeredness.) Put yourself in the position of the recipient and consider how much better the second of these makes you feel:

  • “I can’t tell you how much I appreciated your coming by the hospital last week. I just can’t thank you enough.” [A less-literate writer would ...
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LawProse Lesson #291: The hanging indent.

Among the most useful devices in document design is the “hanging indent”—the device by which the second and following lines of an indented passage align with the first. The result: the set-off text becomes more prominent on the page.

Hanging indents are useful with outlines and numbered, lettered, or bulleted lists. They’re especially useful in contracts. Compare the two passages attached below.

If you don’t know how to make hanging indents (the spacebar is never involved!), learn fast. They’re easy. In Microsoft ...

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LawProse Lesson #290: The clean line in prose.

How do you create a clean narrative line? Or a clean analytical line? Or a clean persuasive line?

A compelling piece of writing contains no clutter, no distractions—nothing to sidetrack the reader. It marches forward in a clear progression of thought without ever tempting readers to rebel.

The key unit of clean writing is the coherent paragraph, and the seamless joining of these paragraphs imparts a sense of command and trustworthiness.

In Part 5 of Bryan Garner’s ten-part webinar series Legal Writing in ...

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LawProse Lesson #289: The true meaning of “executive summary.”

Shorter is not always better when it comes to summaries. You don’t want to say more than the occasion demands—but you don’t want to say less, either. Brevity without substance is worthless.

So how do you write a concise, useful summary? An effective summary is focused, specific, and placed always at the beginning of your document so readers don’t have to dig. It gets to the point and lays the foundation for what’s to follow. You want a summary that can ...

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LawProse Lesson #288: To Be or Not to Be.

Know what? You use is, are, was, and were more than any other verbs. You shrink from thinking of stronger verbs. You subconsciously besplatter your pages with inert verbs that squat or prostrate themselves. They do almost nothing. They occasionally flail, they swat at ideas, but mostly they just slumber.

So if you want to brighten your style, start with your verbs. Spruce them up. Tweak them. Ponder this.

In Part 3 of Bryan Garner’s forthcoming ten-part webinar series, Legal Writing in ...

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LawProse Lesson #287: The plague of wordiness.

Lawyers are so accustomed to their own verbosity that they have come to see the word verbiage as just another term for “wording.” In fact verbiage most commonly (and traditionally) connotes a gross surplus of words. (Note also that verbiage has three syllables, not two.)

How bad is verbosity in legal writing? In a typical brief or contract prepared by reputable lawyers, a simple line-edit could typically result in a 25% reduction in the word count—without changing the meaning.

Take this example:

Not ...

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LawProse Lesson #286: Nonlinear outlining.

Most schoolchildren are taught to start an outline with “I, II, III”—a quintessentially linear structure. But for many writers, this rote method leads to “outliner’s block”: the relative inability to produce a traditional outline. Most writers are familiar with the anxiety that facing an empty page can provoke. Not knowing where to begin a project, they find that all their ideas have suddenly deserted them, leaving their minds as blank as the paper. An empty outline only compounds that problem ...

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LawProse Lesson #285: The Biggest Mistake of Legal Writers.

What’s the biggest mistake that legal writers make? It’s a simple blunder, really: too many begin writing before truly understanding the message they’re trying to communicate. They compose prematurely, hoping they’ll figure out the message along the way. Even if they do figure it out, their writing will inevitably be longer than necessary—both because it will include extraneous information and because it will almost certainly be repetitious. It will meander, burying the lead and lacking a discernible structure. It won’t ...

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LawProse Lesson #284: A short quiz on lexical distinctions.

Few things are more embarrassing for a professional writer or speaker than to use a wrong word. It’s like a professional musician’s hitting a wrong note. You reach into your mind for a word and end up grabbing the one next to it instead. Because the English language is so full of pairs or even groups of nearly identical words, pitfalls abound. Many of these are needless variants—for instance, *disorientated for disoriented. But many others are products of what linguists ...

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LawProse Lesson #283: Chief Justice of What?

It seems that in testing your mastery of capitalization last week, we made an error of our own. The quiz’s final question used the phrase “Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.” A number of you wrote in to say that it should be “Chief Justice of the United States.” And so it should. But that wasn’t always the case.

Surprisingly, Article III of the U.S. Constitution makes no reference to the office. In fact, the word justice doesn’t even appear there. ...

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