Effective Written Communication: Thinking Like a Writer - ABA YLD 101 Practice Series

By Stephen V. Armstrong

To become a good legal writer, most of us have to go through two stages of intellectual growth. In law school we learned that what seems simple to non-lawyers is, in fact, complex. Then we learn that, to write well about the law, we must return to simplicity, which results from organizing complex information in away that our readers can understand it as easily and clearly as possible.

In the first stage, we worry mostly about logic and precision - about having exactly the right information or ideas and putting them in exactly the right order. In the second stage, we realize that logic and precision are not enough. We also have to be coherent and persuasive. In other words, we must convince readers to believe that we have a fact or idea worth their attention and have to make our logic easy to see and understand.

To be coherent and persuasive, not just logical and precise, we must learn to think like a writer, not just a lawyer. To think like a writer means thinking like a reader viewing our documents from our readers’ perspectives. Otherwise, we won’t be able to communicate effectively, no matter how brilliant we are as lawyers.

Capturing your readers’ attention.
However conscientious your readers, they won’t pay full attention to every page you write unless you prove quickly that it’s worth the effort. The first step is capturing your reader by understanding your topic, relating it to the reader’s world, and making it useful there.

The second step is to approach the job methodically. At the start of a document of any length and importance, you should set out to prove four things:

  1. You have something useful to offer
  2. You will use your reader’s time efficiently
  3. You understand her expectations and speak her language
  4. Because you have mastered your material, you can step back from the details and sum up their point and value

Creating “super-clarity.”
For harried, impatient readers, ordinary clarity—the kind that suffices for college essays, law school exams, or journal notes—is not enough. We need to create what you might think of as “super-clarity” (analogous to super-glue).This is clarity so obvious, so powerful, that it adheres to a reader’s mind as soon as he sees it.

To create clarity sentence-by-sentence, use these techniques:

  1. Be concise
  2. Write short sentences
  3. Avoid jargon
  4. Do not separate noun from verb
  5. Use active not passive voice
  6. Use strong, action verbs

Super-clarity requires not just that each sentence be clear, but also requires the entire document be organized with clarity.

To create organizational clarity, use these techniques:

  1. Use a simple introduction to summarize the document’s point
  2. Make the structure explicit by using headings and subheadings
  3. Provide context before details


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About the Author

Excerpted from a presentation on “The Power of Effective Written Communication,” presented by Stephen V. Armstrong, at an American Bar Association Young Lawyers Division Professional Development Conference.

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