Principles of Good Writing for Legal Professionals

Legal-Questions-AnswersUnfortunately, legal translation and writing too often is thought of and actually is beyond understanding.  Characterized by incomprehensible language, unending sentences that seldom make a clear point, and long paragraphs, it often is printed in tiny font not intended for anyone to read, and certainly not appealing enough to excite anyone’s interest.  Such writing, however, does not have to characterize the legal profession.  Practicing lawyers, law students, and paralegals, like writers in other professions, can and should learn to write clearly and concisely to make their point convincingly and compelling.

Such writing shows respect for both the reader and the reader’s time.  Such writing also does not typically describe legal writing, which usually recognizes no awareness whatsoever of a reader, or even a potential reader.  Instead, it tends to follow a formula that denies any usefulness to a reader or even the existence of a reader.  Its purpose seems to be to meet a legal requirement that cannot be challenged.  And what if means, only other lawyers may be capable of understanding.

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Good writing requires a sense of audience and acknowledge whether that audience is a single person or multiple persons with different needs.  The writer should know each audience’s level of knowledge, his or her needs, and the probable use by each person using the document.  The writer should also know the history preceding the current writing.  These points will preclude repeating what the reader already knows and providing information the reader does not need.  But, more important, when the writer observes these guides to write for a specific audience, the writer treats the reader with the respect he or she deserves.  In cases of multiple readers, the writer should organize the document so that each reader can easily find the information intended for him or her.

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In addition to writing for a real audience with a need for the information you are providing, you must clearly write to achieve your own purpose, usually to convey information.  However, your purpose may be, for example, to convince, to establish a history, to warn of potential danger—to name a few.  Whatever your purpose, it must be established clearly and adhered to throughout your document from its beginning paragraph to its final one.

This brings us to the message, the third part of the good-writing triumvirate.  Your message must be clear, well-supported, organized logically, and concise.  It must be structured with a clear beginning that introduces your topic and explains how your reader should use it.  This beginning, as Aristotle argued, must be followed logically by the middle, which develops the message you are conveying—the same one you introduced at your beginning—and leads logically to the end, or conclusion, which usually summarizes the information you have developed in the middle.  Each part—beginning, middle, and end—should be clearly organized into sections, paragraphs, and sentences composed of words carefully chosen for their accuracy and appropriateness.

Clear writing relies on giving the reader a roadmap that indicates the boundaries of the document, the pathway through it, and the method the writer is using.  It requires that each section begin with a description of the point or the material in that section and an accurate sequence of that information.  Similarly, each paragraph should begin with a topic sentence which summarizes or gives an overview of its content.  And each first sentence should provide all the information the reader needs to understand what the writer is discussing.  Nothing before the first sentence should be required to explain what you are writing about.  Subsequent sentences should result logically from the preceding sentence and lead logically to the following sentence, thus being so tightly interlocked that the position of each sentence in the paragraph cannot be shifted or altered.  Final sentences should result logically from the preceding sentence and require nothing more written at the end.

Aspiring legal translators and writers should internalize these principles of good writing so that they are so automatic that they can concentrate on the legal issues and not be stymied by practices of English composition.  A sense of document organization, paragraph structure, and sentence order should be automatic.  Without mastering these general principles of clear, effective, compelling writing, legal professionals will continue to perpetuate the stereotype and reality of unreadable legalese, an outcome not to be desired.

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