Five Habits to Make in 2016

I try to stay upbeat about legal writing. In that spirit, I will suggest five great habits for the few short months of 2016 that remain.

1. At least once a week, expose yourself . . . to a writing model.

In the hustle-bustle of work life, you have to read a lot of writing that’s more functional than inspirational, to put it gently. As an antidote, carve out ten minutes a week to pour a drink and immerse yourself in some stellar prose. If you’re a litigator, deconstruct a page or two of a brief from the Solicitor General’s Office. If you’re a corporate type or just want to sharpen your expository chops, peer into a passage from The Economist, The Atlantic, the Financial Times, or The New Yorker.

2. Start each important email with what you hope the recipient will do after reading it.

Strive to include a “call to action” as early as possible. “Why are you writing me?” is the first question you should answer.

3. Before you proofread, spend five minutes searching for words to cut or shorten.

This habit is a sort of negative-spun-into-a-positive, but that’s exactly how you should treat editing: as something happy and productive! Take after Michelangelo, who when asked how he sculpted David responded that he just took a large block of marble and chipped away at anything that wasn’t beautiful. (Some scholars call this story apocryphal, but hey, it’s a great image.)

4. Use more enumerated and bullet-pointed lists.

If the legal world could learn one thing from the corporate world, it’s the beauty of bullet points and lists. Not to mention bullet-pointed lists.

In many writing situations, your best bet is to make a point, let the reader know how many reasons support that point, and then list those reasons in a way that’s easy to follow and remember. You can make such a list for concerns about a proposal. For a recommended course of action. For steps to closing a deal. Or for reasons that a case is distinguishable.

5. Play a short sentence game.

It’s easy enough to rattle on about “using short sentences.” But the law doesn’t lend itself to short sentences, and you wouldn’t want a bunch of them in a row even if it did. So here’s a good goalpost for this year: On every page of text, make sure that at least one sentence starts and stops on the same line.


Happy 2016!