Legal writing is all about strong language, and brevity. Here are some tips to improve your legal writing.
- Avoid passive voice when you can: Use active voice whenever possible. This not only sounds better, but it’s also more persuasive. It’s now commonplace to speak and write using passive language, but with a little bit of effort you can adjust and improve. Like a father who senses when another family member touches the household thermostat against his wishes, my tick is triggered when I read passive voice. During my first year of law school, my writing professor beat this into me until I used active voice. The problem with writing in the passive voice is that it creates unclear sentences. Active voice creates clearer sentences that significantly cut down on the chances of losing your reader.
Take the following sentences:
Passive voice: The documents were drafted by my paralegal.
Active voice: My paralegal drafted the documents.
In the above instance, the second sentence is simpler and flows better.
Here’s another example:
Passive voice: It is the opinion of this court that the evidence will be admitted…
Active voice: The court admits the evidence…
The key is to choose better and stronger wording. Avoid wording such as: has been, were, being, have, and had. You want to pick wording that specifies a particular person or object that completes an action. Instead of saying “the car was stolen on the night in question”, say “the defendant stole the car….”
Check out this site for a more thorough explanation on passive and active forms
Cut down on excessive wording:
state it simply whenever possible. Of course, you want to avoid run-on sentences, but sometimes a short sentence will do the job. Also, you want to keep your sentences to one thought each, not multiple.
This tip is related to the first one. Notice in both examples above that the active voice sentences use fewer words. In the first sentence about the paralegal, the active voice sentence conveys the message in 5 words as opposed to 7 for the passive voice. In the second sentence, the active voice sentence uses 5 words instead of a whopping 13 for the passive voice. In the ever evolving technological age in which we live, where the information demand is growing louder and more forceful, getting to the point seems to be more important than ever.
While active voice is important, cutting down on excessive wording applies across the board. Being wordy isn’t exclusive to passive voice sentences.
Look at the following sentences:
The conversation has been
moved to the trash.
The conversation is
trashed, or the conversation was
moved to the trash.
Your message has been
Your message is
Sending has been
What have you been
up to these days?
you doing these days?
I was working on
writing the briefs
on the briefs or I wrote
Although these are simple and straightforward examples, my point should be clear. Your message can be conveyed simply and with less wording. In every sentence you write, you should be looking to eliminate unnecessary words. For every four (4) words, try to cut it down to three (3).
For additional legal writing tips, check out 10 tips for better legal writing
and Legal Writing: Ten Tips from the Trenches
Jason Long is a 2015 graduate of the Oklahoma City University School of Law.