One idea per sentence, lawyers. Please.

Want to know a major source of bad legal writing? It’s deceptively simple: Lawyers cram too many ideas into one poor, overworked, run-on sentence. From this one writing sin flows most of the evils of bad legal writing.

The results are never pretty. While compound-complex sentences have their place, that place is not every single sentence in a 200-word paragraph.

wmd_flowWorse, overburdened sentences make your reader tune out and move on, if they possibly can—say, if they’re reading your blog post, or your article in a legal publication. There goes your marketing campaign!

If reading your writing is required, say by a judge or a colleague, your reader gets irritated and frustrated with you.

Making readers tune out, or irritating them, is not what you want to do.

What It Looks Like

Here’s an example of some iffy legal writing, in case you’re not sure what I’m railing about.

Although that response may, at first, seem a bit glib, the inquiring party is informed that despite what may have been conveyed through the parties’ submissions, communicated via opening statements, and even discussed in caucus, the fact remains that a Mediator does not know all of the factors that may influence the parties in their settlement evaluation and approach to negotiations.

This 61-word monstrosity isn’t even the worst I’ve seen. I’d say it’s average lawyer writing. Sad!

Breaking It Down

Here are the ideas that the author appears to be trying to convey in this article on mediation:

  1. The response may initially seem glib.
  2. The parties submitted evidence through formal submissions and opening statements, and discussed that and possibly more evidence during a caucus.
  3. Mediators don’t know what, precisely, influences parties when they evaluate settlement options and negotiation strategy.

Whew! Those are some complex ideas for one measly sentence to carry.

So how do you fix this?

Here’s one way:

That response may, at first, seem a bit glib. It is true that the parties have submitted evidence, made opening statements, and discussed other factors during the caucus. But a Mediator does not know all the factors that influence the parties in their settlement evaluation and approach to negotiations.

Now we have 49 words, spread out over 3 sentences. That’s an average sentence length of 17. Legal writing guru Bryan Garner recommends aiming for a 20-word average sentence length, so we’re in much better shape with the revised version.

Fixing the Root Cause

My personal belief is that lawyers constantly fear that their words will be taken out of context, so they cram qualifiers in every sentence to combat that possibility. Living in and acting out of fear produces many bad results, and hideous legal writing is but one of them.

The other motivation—also fear-driven—is to be exceedingly precise, so that the author cannot possibly be misunderstood. Trouble is, layering on so many qualifiers means that you cannot be understood. At least, not without re-reading the offending sentence 4 times. Ain’t no one got time for that. Certainly, not clients nor judges.

As an editor for Legal Times once told me, the idea is to be understood by 90% of your audience, not 100% of it.

Instead of writing defensively:

  • Write shorter, less complex sentences.
  • Use commas when grammatically appropriate. (Truly, they are not the spawn of the devil.)
  • Use a semi-colon, or even a period, rather than connecting two ideas with a comma and “and,” “but,” “however,” or another connector.
  • You may use a dash, occasionally, but please do so sparingly.
  • Avoid passive voice. It immediately adds length to sentences, and dilutes your message.

What’s your favorite tool for cutting down sentence length? What’s your pet peeve about lawyer writing?

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering attorney who writes for social media, edits, teaches, and coaches unhappy attorneys along their road to recovering attorney. Got a question? Contact her at jalvey@jenniferalvey.com.

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