Effective Writing is Efficient Writing

Writing to British civil servants in the 1940s, Sir Ernest Gowers explained in The Complete Plain Words that effective writing is efficient writing:

To be clear is to be efficient; to be obscure is to be inefficient. Your style . . . is to be judged not by literary conventions or grammatical niceties but by whether it carries out efficiently the job you are paid to do.

Lawyers could learn a lot from Sir Ernest. Judging by their sprawling briefs and ponderous, verbose contracts, many lawyers care little about word economy. How can lawyers write more efficiently? They can start by targeting two main enemies of efficient legal writing: buried verbs (aka nominalizations) and unnecessary prepositions.

Be Concrete by Exhuming Buried Verbs

Inefficient legal writers bury verbs in abstract nouns. For example, instead of writing “Plaintiffs allege that defendant breached the contract,” or “The judge found that defendant violated the statute,” lawyers will bury the verbs allege and violated in abstract-noun phrases: “Plaintiffs make the allegation that defendant breached the contract,” and “The judge found that defendant was in violation of the statute.”

In Garner on Language and Writing, Bryan Garner explains why buried verbs make legal writing inefficient: (a) Abstract nouns are longer than base verbs; (b) Writers often wedge buried verbs in long prepositional phrases and passive constructions; (c) Abstract nouns confuse readers because they don’t directly say who is doing what; and (d) Buried verbs make writing stagnant and dull.

If you learn how to spot buried verbs, however, it’s easy to correct them. Richard Wydick points out in Plain English for Lawyers that base verbs are often buried in words ending with the suffixes –al, –ment, –ant, –ence, –ion, –ent, –ancy, –ency, –ance, and –ity. By searching for these suffixes, you’ll catch most buried verbs. You can also identify buried verbs by searching for the preposition of. Of attaches to abstract nouns like suckerfishes attach to sharks.

After this initial scrub, ask whether you’ve written each sentence actively and concretely. If you do that, it’s easy to eliminate the buried verbs in sentences such as this one: “After the prosecutor conducted an investigation, she reached the conclusion that defendant was in violation of the law” (18 words). The rewrite saves eight words: “After investigating, the prosecutor concluded that defendant violated the law” (10 words).

Tighten by Cutting Prepositions

Efficient legal writers also cut unnecessary simple prepositions such as at, of, in, into, for, on, to, and with. As Garner notes in The Winning Brief, unnecessary prepositions beget flabby writing, and writers usually don’t lose substance by nixing them. Consider this sentence, which sports four avoidable ofs: “The lawyer of the company filed the brief of the company with the office of the clerk of the district court” (21 words). Cutting the prepositions saves nine words: “The company’s lawyer filed its brief with the district-court clerk’s office” (12 words).

Compound prepositions also hamper efficient prose. As Richard Wydick writes in Plain English for Lawyers, compound prepositions “suck the vital juices from your writing” by adding extra words and sometimes creating ambiguity.

Here are some juice-sucking compound prepositions, followed by simpler substitutes: am in receipt of [have], as to [about], at this point in time [now], despite of the fact that [although], during such time as [while], for the purpose of [to], in addition to [besides], in accordance with [under, according to], in connection with [about, for], in furtherance of [to advance], in light of the fact that [because], in order to [to], in the course of [while], in the event that [if], in the instant case [here], prior/previous to [before], subsequent to [after], until such time as [until], and with regard to [regarding, with].

Besides adding surplus words and ambiguity, compound prepositions don’t jibe with plain English. Can you recall the last time a colleague stopped by your office to say: “I am in receipt of the memorandum drafted by you for the purpose of preparing me for the hearing. As regards to the cases cited therein, in light of the fact that the hearing is tomorrow, I will undertake an effort to read them tonight in furtherance of my preparation. I will make contact with you subsequent to my preparation if I have any questions at that point in time.”

If you say that nobody talks like this, why then do some lawyers consider this nonsense acceptable in their writing?

Efficiency is Courtesy

In the Golden Book on Writing, David Lambuth says that the “object of any piece of writing is to make your reader understand exactly what you have to say — and understand it as quickly and as effectively as possible.” Doubtless his advice applies to the producers and consumers of legal writing.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s a judge who’s forced to read hundreds of briefs a year, a busy senior partner juggling multiple writing projects, or clients who would rather tend to their businesses or households, legal-writing consumers pay for — and expect — the courtesy of efficient legal writing.

So the next time you file a brief or send a document to a client, be honest about whether you’ve exhumed the buried verbs and cut unnecessary prepositions. If you do that, your clients will appreciate your efficiency and the courtesy that comes with it.

This column is adapted from an article originally published in the Minnesota Lawyer on March 4, 2013. 


1 Comment

  1. Avatar Lukasz Gos says:

    Matthew, as much as I love pissing people off with working class language in business letters, “After investigating, the prosecutor concluded that defendant violated the law,” and, “The company’s lawyer filed its brief with the district-court clerk’s office,” sound way too lay for my taste. I don’t like the grammar of the second one, actually. The compounds and Saxon genitives make it sound unnatural. Legalese is at least somewhat natural when not used in dumb ways. After all, legalese is the naturally developed language of official documents. By contrast, the “simple language” of legal documents is an artificial construct. In fact, it’s worse legalese than the real legalese is. Also, reading Roman jurists is good for some down to earth, no-nonsense writing.

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