Obvious Writing Through Purposeful Sentences

Obvious writing makes winning much more likely. Why?

Consider our courts’ workloads. A federal district court judge, typically, yearly handles over five-hundred filings.[1]

The government appellate courts yearly receive greater than 50,000 appeals.[2] Condition courts go through the same demands.[3]

These docket demands, however, don’t diminish the function of briefs. Contrary, it’s enhanced. Idol judges-even if they hear dental arguments-regularly make their rulings in line with the briefs.[4] A fantastic brief, then, must convey towards the readers the important thing points for victory-and achieve this in a single studying.

This reality reinforces the need for obvious writing achieving that clearness may be the challenge. To advertise this endeavor, I offer two concepts-after which propose practical steps to stick to the concepts.

Principle No. 1:  Every sentence — and every word in the sentence — needs a purpose.  Both the writer and the reader should understand that purpose.  Sentences without purposes should be cut.  A writer should cut sentences without purposes.  This principle isn’t novel:  Strunk & White’s Elementary Principles of Composition instructs writers to “omit needless words.”

What is more novel, though, is finding briefs that follow the principle.  Consider the following sentence in a summary judgment brief that I received recently.  The case concerns whether the defendants gave the plaintiff fraudulent financial information:

Plaintiff’s characterizations of the financial information provided by Defendants do not change the undisputed facts that Defendants never held out the financial information as being anything other than estimates of expenses and net income for commercial property to be constructed in the future.

What’s the objective of this sentence? It perhaps has lots of points: (1) the defendants told the complaintant the relevant financial information was a quote (2) undisputed details prove this time and (3) the plaintiffs’ characterizations don’t alter the undisputed details.

A readers, though, can’t tell which point is most important. Another principle can solve this issue.

Principle No. 2:  Readers value any moment in a sentence when the grammatical structure comes to a full halt.[5]

This rule comes from Duke University emeritus writing professor George Gopen.  He calls each such moment a “stress position.”  Periods, colons, semicolons, and dashes are stress positions.

To restate this principle, convey only one point per stress position.  In the example above, the author used one stress position — a period — but tried to convey at least three different points.  Assuming that those points are all important, consider this revised draft that conveys one point per stress position.

Here, summary judgment is warranted based on an undisputed fact:  the defendants told the plaintiff that the relevant financial information was an estimate.  The plaintiff’s characterization of this fact does not change its undisputed nature.

This might most likely be tightened further, however the stress positions focus the readers around the tips: (1) there’s a vital undisputed fact (2) the defendants told the complaintant the data was just a quote and (3) the plaintiff’s characterizations don’t alter the analysis. That one trick produced a effective effect. Give mtss is a try having a brief you’re writing now.

Now, getting advised loyalty to those concepts, I ought to admit a substantial consequence: this loyalty consumes time. Your schedule includes a fixed quantity of hrs. Your client’s lawsuit budget, furthermore, has limits. In my opinion, though, four or five specific steps can relieve these burdens.

First, if you are the first drafter of the brief, leave yourself the required time. Set a particular, realistic deadline. Share that deadline with individuals in your team, after which meet it. If you’re the senior attorney, impose a deadline confer, though, using the initial drafter to make sure that the deadline is achievable.

Second, start drafting early. Using these sentence-specific rules-mainly in the initial draft-requires multiple editing models. Once the initial drafter follows these rules, subsequent edits by senior lawyers could be more exact. It makes sense a far more focused, more effective brief.

Third, use multiple editors. A brief’s singular purpose is perfect for the readers to know the reality that the author really wants to convey. Multiple editors will read with various perspectives. Their opinions will raise the chance that you’ve considered the perspective of the very most valuable readers: a legal court.

4th, discuss these problems together with your client. Particularly, make a realistic budget that considers the size of the drafting process. Set a practical deadline, too, that’s multiple days-otherwise more than per week-prior to the court deadline to transmit a draft towards the client. Openly inform your client that you would like feedback about which arguments were the toughest to follow along with quite simply, make sure that your client comprehends what exactly that you would like to share. Here, honest feedback is crucial.

To sum it up, and according to my experience, purposeful sentence-writing-and taking these practical steps-can increase your brief’s clearness. With apologies to Branch Rickey, winning briefs would be the residue of design.


[1]      Admin. Office of the U.S. Courts, Judicial Business of the United States Courts: 2012 Annual Report of the Director, http://www.uscourts.gov/uscourts/Statistics/JudicialBusiness/2012/appendices/X01ASep12.pdf (last visited July 11, 2013).

[2]      Admin. Office of the U.S. Courts, Judicial Business of the United States Courts: 2012 Annual Report of the Director, http://www.uscourts.gov/Viewer.aspx?doc=/uscourts/Statistics/FederalJudicialCaseloadStatistics/2012/tables/B00Mar12.pdf (last visited July 11, 2013).

[3]      See, e.g., N.C. Admin. Office of the Courts, 2011-12 Quick Facts, http://www.nccourts.org/Citizens/SRPlanning/Documents/quickfacts11-12.pdf (last visited July 11, 2013) (showing that in a recent one-year period the North Carolina Court of Appeals heard over 2,500 appeals).

[4]      See, e.g., Michael Duvall, When Is Oral Argument Important?  A Judicial Clerk’s View of the Debate, 9 J. App. Prac. & Process 121 (2007).

[5]     George Gopen, On the Papers: The Importance of Stress: Indicating the Most Important Words in a Sentence, Litigation, vol. 38, No. 1 (Fall 2011).

*This article originally appeared in the January 2014 Issue of For the Defense (A Defense Research Institute Publication).