Write better briefs, better articles with CCS: Clarity, Comprehensiveness, and Strategy
As first-year law school students, we learned the fundamentals of legal reasoning and analysis, research, and the basics of persuasive legal writing. We spent hours writing case summaries, briefs, memoranda, and letters honing our legal advocacy and communication skills. Many of us can write a mean brief but are lost when it comes to writing an article for a newspaper, blog, or magazine. Clarity, comprehensiveness, and strategic use of speech are the backbone of good writing, no matter the purpose or the audience; and with little backbone and too much ego, even a winning argument can end up buried beneath confusing prose. Knowing how to minimize detractions, such as digressions and pomposity, can make your writing even better. Consider these tips:
Strive for CLARITY
Writing with clarity means knowing and understanding who your audience is, staying focused on the purpose behind your writing, and choosing the right words while using as few words as possible to accomplish your objective. When filing a brief, the audience typically is the judge or the opposing party’s counsel. But what if you’re writing an article for a non-legal audience? Have you done your research or asked the right questions in order to understand who your target audience is? Sure, legalese is fine for the motion you just filed or for the law review article you just wrote, but legalese isn’t necessarily appropriate for the Association of American Physicians newsletter or the American Association for Retired Persons magazine. To make sure you stay on point:
First, draft an outline: Starting with a general outline of your article will help you stay focused on the true purpose and will keep you from straying. This is easier said than done sometimes, especially when a train of thought takes you in a related but different direction. But it’s your responsibility to spot this digression and remove it. Draft an introduction, provide the details in the body, and always provide a conclusion.
Second, state the topic: Be clear as to what the topic is, then offer some background. And, most importantly, explain to your readers why they should care about the topic, or your purpose for writing the article might get lost in translation. If you’re writing an article about impending legislation, for example, don’t assume your audience knows anything about it. Summarize it and draw your audience’s attention to the parts on which you plan to focus. Simplify, but don’t over-simplify to the point where the reader might be offended—steer clear of condescension and flippancy. And when writing an informative article describing legislation or a law, always refer to its formal title; for example, the health care reform law is formally the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act—Obamacare is only the nickname associated with it.
Third, say it in fewer words: Choosing the right words or deciding how to state your point succinctly typically comes during your editing stage. Always write the article first with whatever comes to mind. Then go back and tidy up. Look for places where you should use strong verbs. Rather than writing, “He provided assistance,” use instead, “He assisted.” Rather than, “He created an obstruction,” go with, “He obstructed.”
Strive to be COMPREHENSIVE
First, choose a topic that fits the audience. Remember, you are writing the article not to stroke your own ego but to educate and inform your readers. Try to be comprehensive in your coverage, but bear in mind that if you’re writing an article for a newspaper or magazine, you’ll need to follow guidelines—a specific word count, citation style, writing style, etc. Aiming for comprehensiveness can be tricky, but being comprehensive isn’t just about the number of words on the page, it’s about choosing your words wisely.
Second, critique your work as if you are the reader. Don’t leave the audience guessing what the next steps are or wondering whether there are any next steps. Ask yourself, what is the key takeaway you want your readers to have? Forget for a moment what you know about the subject and ask yourself, does the article deliver on its promise to educate and inform? Is the topic clearly described? Have you provided a clear explanation as to why the topic is important and why the reader should care? Does the article provide enough detail so the reader fully understands the issues? Have you included a call to action, if appropriate?
Third, always seek someone else’s opinion. Once you’ve made your own edits, have someone else read it with a critical eye. We’re not always the best and most capable at reviewing and critiquing our own work. A trusted colleague or a freelance editor can spot the holes, redundancies, and confusing language; recommend changes; and, best of all, keep us humble.
STRATEGIZE Your Use of Active vs. Passive Voice
Using active voice will shorten your sentences and help you reach your point quicker. A direct approach allows for comprehensiveness with fewer words. It also cuts down on the appearance of rambling. For example, in passive voice, you would have, “The sidewalk was shoveled by the crewmen.” Change this to active voice and you get, “The crewmen shoveled the sidewalk.” Using active voice not only shortened this seven-word sentence to five, the sentence now appears more direct. Here’s another passive statement: “The application, with the appropriate fee, should be filed with the USCIS office designated in the instructions to the Form I-485.” This sentence would be so much better and clearer if it were, “File the application and the appropriate fee with the USCIS office designated in the Form I-485 instructions.” The active voice example provides the same information using a more direct route and reduces 21 words to 17.
In legal publishing, active voice is preferred over passive voice, with some exceptions. In law practice, legal briefs and memoranda, in particular, are known for their overuse of passive voice. But under certain circumstances, passive voice is a better choice if the writer’s goal is to remain neutral; telling the truth but in a passive way might reduce the negative impact. In any form of writing, however, one should strive to be more direct while being strategic in the use of passive speech.
Whether you’re writing for a legal audience or laypeople, your ultimate goal is readability. Knowing that your audience understands and identifies with the topic you’ve chosen makes it all worthwhile. Clarity, comprehensiveness, and strategy must be strived for in legal briefs or magazine articles. Sorry, I meant, you should strive for clarity, comprehensiveness, and strategy in legal briefs or magazine articles—same number of words, just more direct.