WRITING WELL! The Annual Refresher!
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Every now and then, something stimulates me to check my writing style. A subscription to The Economist magazine entitled me to listen to a podcast on how to improve your writing style. I learned a lot and was reminded that I have become a lazy writer.
Everyone should do a regular check-up on how you write. Writings, of course, includes emails, texts, letters, and contracts. And folks, I promise you, if you go back and look at your past writings, you will be alarmed. Not only will you be shocked what you said, but also how you said it!
First, here are several good books on writing style that everyone should keep nearby:
The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. It is remarkably short and reminds us to omit needless words!
The Economist Style Guide. Perhaps the definitive book for those who write in the business environment.
Mightier Than The Sword by C. Edward Good. This was recommended to me by the best lawyer I ever knew, Wynn Whittaker. It is standard book for law students.
Writing To Win by Steven D. Stark. A good book, especially for lawyers, but also for those who need to be persuasive.
Here are just a few things the podcast challenged me:
- Write, Save, Read, Send. I just received a rather thoughtless email from a very good friend who agreed, in a very backhand way, with everything I had proposed in an earlier email. A simple, “I agree” would have done – instead, she had to explain to me that 1. She was in charge; and 2. That the decision was hers. I guess that is fine, but are you trying to prove how smart and important you are? Here is a better approach: write a response; save it; read it (even aloud); and then send it. In this hurry up world, we tend to respond to every text or email in 30 minutes or less. There is a certain efficiency in this, especially for the writer, but our response may be less than stellar. Do you really believe that everyone expects a response to their important communication in 30 minutes? I prefer a thoughtful and professional response, even if it is the next day. Feel you need to respond immediately: try “I got your message, which I am carefully considering, and will respond by close of business tomorrow.”
- Shorter is Better than Longer. Many lawsuits we handle concern the interpretation of a contract that has conflicting terms. In one section of the contract, you are required to do A; in another section of the contract, you are prohibited from doing A. Which is it? Before memory typewriters and MS Word, brevity was important. Now many draftsmen title their document, add signature clauses, and then just shovel in a lot of words into the middle. There are several ways to minimize this:
- Consciously attempt to remove unnecessary word and clauses.
- Do you need a paragraph on choice of law and a separate paragraph on choice of forum? Of course not, consolidate these provisions into one paragraph.
- Evaluate the boilerplate clauses. Consider, every time, what can be written differently, more clearly, and more succinctly. You may find that many of these boilerplate clauses can be deleted completely.
- You are writing prose, not poetry. Always eliminate unnecessary words and clauses – instead of In the event that, try
- Read your document, text, or email aloud before sending. You will be surprised the changes you then make.
- Use the active voice. Try writing without using the verb to be.
- Have someone unfamiliar with the matter read your document. If they do not understand it, there is a pretty good chance the ultimate recipient will not understand it; if they find it offensive, there is a pretty good chance the ultimate recipient will find it offensive.
- Avoid Foul Language. Aside from the obvious reasons of courtesy, etiquette, and professionalism, remember a written document is You never know when, in some distant future, you are correctly identified as having a potty mouth.
- Consider your audience. Whenever you write you are trying to make someone 1. Like you; or 2. Do what you want them to do. Church ladies do not like slang. So do not use slang when you write to a church lady. When I lived in New Orleans, I noticed an air of formality, which some people would consider to be stuffy. I, however, rather liked it. But with that in mind, I am a little more formal when dealing with New Orleanians – perhaps more formal dress, perhaps yes sir and yes ma’am. New Orleans is not going to change me; but I will not change New Orleans. Do I want people to like me and win them over to my way of thinking – or do I want to chastise them and risk alienating them? When I write, I want to meet you on your terms!
- Avoid cliches and words susceptible to misinterpretation. What do you mean, that dog won’t hunt? And here is my pet peeve – Capitalist. Karl Marx coined the term Capitalist to describe a bad person; others classify capitalists as money grubbing individuals who lack a moral compass. Rather, how about describing yourself as someone who supports free trade and free markets; self-reliance and individual responsibility; the freedom to contract; the rule of law? Shorthand terms may not mean the same thing to a third person that they mean to you.
- Consider the unconventional. The podcast challenged me to reconsider three grammatical rules:
- Never begin a sentence with and or While not encouraged often, it can be effective. Note, I have done this in this blog on several occasions.
- Never end a sentence with a preposition. I will never do that – anyone that sends me a sentence ending in a preposition will be perceived as a knuckle- dragging neanderthal. Sorry, no way will I ever be able to accept this.
- Do not split an infinitive. Yes, “it’s okay to occasionally split an infinitive”! But if you can be graceful, it is better not to split it. “It’s okay to split an infinitive occasionally” would pose a lower risk of annoying your readers than the first sentence, which, as you may have noticed, contains a split infinitive. But here is one split infinitive I like:
- To boldly go where no man has gone before; better than – to go boldly where no man has gone before? I suspect Captain Kirk thought that one through. Know the rule, though, and consciously decide when to violate it.
by Jack M. Wilhelm
Edward Wilhelm and Jack Wilhelm provide tremendously high value legal assistance to many very desirable clients.
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