“The English language is an arsenal of weapons. If you are going to brandish them without checking to see whether or not they are loaded, you must expect to have them explode in your face from time to time.” ~ Stephen Fry
As a Trial Court Staff Attorney, you can imagine I do quite a bit of reading and writing. I like to think my writing is fairly decent, but it has certainly come a long way. It is no question that since reading and writing is a majority of what I do for a living (which is not as boring as you may think), I have had a fair amount of practice. Nonetheless, legal writing in particular comes with its own unique challenges. Rightfully so, as legal writing sets lawyers apart from the crowd and requires a level of mastery no matter what area of law you practice. So, here is a short list of writing tips I have developed over the years that I use to bring about my best writing.
1. If you do not need it, get rid of it.
We have come away from “legalese.” The best writing (and the best way to make your argument) is to write in a clear and concise manner with plain language. Fancy words are not necessary, and in this day and age where the use of technology provides courts the ability to move a substantial number of cases forward in a shorter period of time, it is important to exercise brevity without jeopardizing the clarity of your argument. A lengthy pleading or argument does not necessarily win the case. (For this reason, tip number two goes hand-in-hand with tip number one.) One way to put this tip into practice is to eliminate redundant words or phrases. Not sure how to go about doing so? Here is a website that provides examples of redundant words and phrases you should excise from your writing: https://www.dailywritingtips.com/50-redundant-phrases-to-avoid/.
2. Proofread with a red pen.
Technology is great. It really is, but I prefer to proofread the old-fashioned way – on paper with a red pen. I like to save paper and recycle as much as I can, but I cannot shake the habit of proofreading on paper. There are a couple of reasons I do this. First, I want the errors and typos to jump out at me, so that it is easier to correct them. I find that my eyes cannot catch errors on a computer screen as well as they do off of a sheet of paper. Second, the red pen helps draw my eye to the error so that I can make sure I do not miss the correction when I go back and fix it on my computer. Now, it is not always practical to proofread in this manner, but I typically use this method for any of my work that is longer than ten pages. Another proofreading tip that may help (which a colleague of mine shared with me) is to read your paper backward. That is, to start at the very last paragraph and read each sentence (starting with the last sentence) all the way to the top. I believe the focus of this method is to assist your eyes in catching spelling errors. I will admit, I do not utilize this method very often. But when I do, I typically use it for single paragraphs, as opposed to the entire paper. It works effectively for me this way.
3. Take a break!
I cannot stress this one enough. I get that we all have looming deadlines, so this one may not be practical in every scenario. But when you can, make sure to take a break from your writing, especially when you are writing a lengthy piece (such as an appellate brief or a traditional memorandum of law.) Taking a break may give you a new and fresh perspective. I find that taking a break also helps me develop better terms and connectors to use in my research.
4. Get another set of eyes.
You have probably heard this one before. Have someone else take a look at your writing. When you have been laboring over a pleading or motion for a long time, your brain has likely memorized the entire thing already. Therefore, it is difficult for you to identify things that are out of place, or determine whether it actually makes sense. Having your colleagues proofread your work can be very beneficial, as they will probably find errors you have overlooked many times. I have also found that having a colleague proofread my work is a learning experience. My colleagues have had a hand in making me a better writer. Over time, it is easy to forget important writing rules, but I am fortunate to have awesome colleagues that remind me of them when they review my work. This tip may force you out of your comfort zone a bit, but it will make you a better writer (and proofreader for others.)
5. Legal Citations
This last one is particularly relevant for legal writers. Even though I learned how to cite in undergrad when I acquired my paralegal certification, I will be the first to admit that legal citations were not my forte. In the past, I was completely intimidated by legal citations (and the Bluebook for that matter), as I feared getting them wrong. But just like speaking a language, with practice, you get better. So, my tip to you on legal citations is Florida Rule of Appellate Procedure 9.800. Did you know about this rule? Rule 9.800 provides the uniform citation system in Florida. According to the rule, you should only use the Bluebook for citations not covered in the rule, and if the citation is not covered in the rule or the Bluebook, then you must utilize the citation format prescribed in the Florida Style Manual. See Fla R. App. P. 9.800(p). Although rule 9.800 is included in the appellate rules, the rule specifically states that it applies to all legal documents. Personally, I find rule 9.800 is easier to understand and includes a majority of the citation formats a practitioner needs.
There you have it. I hope these tips are of great use to you. Happy writing!