From Rough-Hewn to Refined

Vol. 42 No. 5


Bryan A. Garner is the author of The Elements of Legal Style (Oxford), The Redbook: A Manual on Legal Style (West), Legal Writing in Plain English (Chicago), and many other books on writing and grammar. He is the editor in chief of Black’s Law Dictionary.

What’s your biggest challenge as a writer? It’s figuring out, from the mass of things you might possibly mention, precisely what your points are—and then stating them cogently, and with adequate support.

Although this advice might seem obvious, legal writers constantly overlook it. The result is a diffuse, aimless style. And even with your point well in mind, if you take too long to get there, you might as well have no point at all. Only the most highly motivated readers will work to grasp your meaning.

That’s where law school comes in. Every law student reads plenty of diffuse writing and is expected to distill the main points from them. You’ll read old cases that take forever to make a fairly straightforward point. You’ll read law-review articles that take 50 pages to say what might be said more powerfully in three. And as you read these things, your incentive for gleaning their main points will be high: your future in law depends on it. In other words, you will work as hard as any experienced legal reader to break through opaque prose. You’ll simply have to.

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