How to Write Better

Michael Bess is of counsel in Winston & Strawn’s appellate and critical motions practice group.

Let’s get one thing out of the way: I am not the best writer at my firm. I’m a good writer who is always looking to improve. My efforts to grow as a writer and to build a career allow me to offer a little advice for new lawyers who wish to do the same. Follow these tips, and you will become a go-to lawyer for writing assignments.

Read good writing and adopt it. The quickest path to becoming a good writer is to read good writing and adopt styles that work. I have worked with incredibly gifted writers—judges and lawyers alike—and have tried to incorporate their strengths into my own writing. Imitation is not only the sincerest form of flattery, but is also the most effective tool for improvement.

Nail the introduction. Stating your case strongly and clearly at the beginning of a piece is critical. A strong introduction will ensure that the reader understands from the outset what outcome is warranted and why. The introduction should not have formal case citations, excessive details, or unnecessary distractions (such as unwieldy definitions or acronyms). When drafting the introduction, think about what you want the reader to do and why and condense it in one or two pages.

Drop unnecessary and case-specific details. Too often, central points in briefs get lost amid unnecessary details. For example, there is typically no need to supply dates, party names, or other case-specific details when describing case authority. For every fact or detail that is included, the writer should ask: “Is this necessary for the reader to understand the point?”

Don’t use inflammatory language. There is no greater turn-off to judges than abusive, inflammatory, or foul language. The writer loses credibility when advancing ad hominem attacks or incendiary and exaggerated arguments.

Make your brief user-friendly. Use record citations that are easy to understand so that the judge can check the record easily. If referring to the adversary’s argument, always insert a citation for the pages where the argument appears.

Avoid excessive quotations and block quotes. Lengthy block quotes are not persuasive and disrupt an argument. Make quotations count to bolster their persuasive impact. Paraphrasing should be the norm.

Don’t recap legal standards unnecessarily. Including three pages on the summary judgment standard is unnecessary. Judges know it well. Lengthy, boilerplate recitations of law are a waste especially when you are working against page limits.

Be discriminating in advancing arguments. Writers should be selective in what arguments to advance. Unless preservation is an issue, a writer should advance only good arguments, not every argument under the sun.

Check topic sentences. Paragraphs must flow logically from their first sentence. Otherwise, your argument will not make sense.

Be organized. A brief can follow all of the rules listed above but will fail if the points are not organized logically and clearly.

Promote your writing. Effective writing is important to clients. It can save them a lot of money (there is no better news for a client than prevailing on a motion to dismiss) or save the day on appeal. If you are at a firm, send samples of your writing to partners to show them how you can help their clients.

Work on trials and appeals. Try to diversify your workload. I have worked on dispositive motions, on trial teams as a motion writer, and also on appeals. These require different skills, but acquiring a greater range of skills will make you more marketable.

Solicit outside opinions. Solicit critical analysis of your writing. The best writers I’ve worked with shared a common trait: They all know they can get better. Good writers throw out their egos and seek feedback and opinions from others, because the effectiveness of a brief is determined solely by the reader.

Print this article and carry it with you everywhere you go. Or at least keep these tips handy and review them often. Soon colleagues will be asking for your opinion and editing prowess.

If you are looking for more writing advice via an expert approach, Marie Buckley’s The Lawyer’s Essential Guide to Writing is a readable, concrete guide to contemporary legal writing. This book is available at www.ShopABA.org.

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