Occasionally I’ll hear a silly naive person ask why lawyers must have instruction in writing. The answer, of course, is that anyone who poses such a question is almost certainly unaware of his or her own ineptitude. There’s writing in the sense of literacy (can you write your name?), and then there’s real writing. It’s no different from any other skill. You can bowl regularly and have an average score of 80. But I can’t imagine complacency with such a record—if bowling is something you care about.
Let me take that back: I can imagine complacency with such a record because there are many, many legal writers whose skills correspond to those of a bowler who typically scores 80. And these legal writers are often quite self-satisfied. It’s as if they think that 85 is the highest possible score because no one has told them that it goes all the way up to a perfect game of 300.
The sentence-level faults among these unconsciously bungling writers are predictable. Here are the top 20. If you can remember and identify these faults, you’ll become a more effective writer and self-editor. Each correction is keyed to Garner’s Modern American Usage (Oxford University Press, 3d ed. 2009) for a full explanation of the point. Read the faulty version of the sentence carefully, trying to spot the problem (usually italicized) and think about why it’s a problem, before looking at the corrected version.