Can Computers Help You Write Better?
For many lawyers, computers are the enemy: They tempt us to write before we
think. But computers can also help solve common legal-writing problems.
1. Search and Rescue
Search for clutter words to cut. Three common culprits: the preposition “of,” the throat-clearing introduction “it is,” and the word “clearly.”
When proofing, you can also hunt for errors that spell check won’t catch. These two often slip by: “it’s” vs. “its,” and “principal” vs. “principle.”
Tip: In Microsoft Word, go to Edit > Find. Check “Highlight all items found in” before you do your search.
2. Passive Aggressive
If you overuse the passive voice, set your Spelling & Grammar Options to flag passive constructions. You don’t have to change every passive construction, but this tool will help you find the worst offenders.
Tip: In Microsoft Word, go to Tools > Options > Spelling & Grammar > Settings. Check “Passive sentences.”
3. Take Ten
Wordiness is the biggest writing complaint I hear from judges and supervisors. As one wit put it, “Lawyers say less per square inch than anyone else on the planet.”
Take two pages of your document and perform a word count. Now cut 10% of the words in 10 minutes. No excuses, no exceptions!
Tip: In Microsoft Word, go to Tools > Word Count.
4. How do you rate?
You can also use “readability statistics” to gauge your writing quality. Microsoft Grammar will provide a Flesch Reading Ease Score. The formula reflects two key measures of reading ease: your average number of words per sentence, and your average number of syllables per word. In both cases, fewer is better.
Do better Flesch scores mean better writing? Not necessarily. But you can use these metrics to make even the most complicated document easier to digest.
So if you’re feeling brave, check “Show readability statistics” in your Spelling & Grammar Options. After you run your spell checker, your Flesch Score will pop up.
The Flesch Score ranges from 0 to 100. For internal communications and court filings, strive for 30. When you write to clients, your Flesch score should top 40.
For comparison purposes, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address scores about 60. This article gets a 56. U.S. Supreme Court decisions hover around 30. Junior-associate memos rarely crack 20. Attorneys sent to me with “writing problems” are usually stuck around 15.
If you’re unhappy with your score, the solution is easy: cut long sentences in two, and replace longer words with shorter ones. Your score will jump fast.
Tip: In Microsoft Word, go to Tools > Options > Spelling & Grammar. Check “Show readability statistics.”