Quick Writing Tips from One of the TYL Editors
By Colin Darke
Colin Darke is a student in the Graduate Program in Banking and Financial Law at Boston University School of Law. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I am not a great writer, but I seek advice from good writers and try to improve my writing on a regular basis. As an editor of The Young Lawyer, I come across writers that make some of the same mistakes that I have made in the past. I have compiled a short list of some common writing tips that can benefit any writer.
When writing, review your sentences to make sure that each sentence is clear and contributes to the overall piece.
You can accomplish this goal by keeping the subject and verb of a sentence close together. The following is an example of a lazy sentence: “The court in viewing all of the evidence in the light most favorable to the Defendant should still rule in the Plaintiff’s favor.” Fourteen words separate the subject “the court” from the weak verb “should still rule.” You could revise the sentence as follows: “The court should rule in the Plaintiff’s favor, even when viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the Defend-ant.” The revised sentence is easier for the reader to digest. The writer tells the reader upfront what is happening in the sentence, and the comma breaks up an otherwise long sentence.
You can also avoid lazy sentences by using the active voice. Writing in the passive voice is problematic because the emphasis of the writer’s sentence is usually misplaced. For example, “The house was abandoned by the Defendant on April 7, 2001.” You could revise this sentence as follows: “The Defendant abandoned the house on April 7, 2001.” In the revised sentence, the active voice places the emphasis on the actor and creates a more forceful sentence. (If you represented the Defendant referred to in the preceding sentence, however, you might want to use the passive construction as a way to downplay the Defendant’s role in the action.)
Avoid words if you are not positive of the word’s proper usage. Two sets of words that writers often misuse are (1) effect and affect and (2) than and then.
Effect is usually used as a noun, meaning “result,” as in the sentence, “The effect of his actions on the Plaintiff was immeasurable.” Effect is often used more vaguely to refer to a distinct impression that something gives: “She said she was going to take the matter into her own hands, or something to that effect.” The only time effect should be used as a verb is when it means “to cause something to come into being”: “The goal of the organization is to effect change.”
Affect is usually used as a verb to mean “to influence” or “to act on”: “The partner’s harsh criticism did not affect the young associate.” The only time affect should be used as a noun is to mean a feigned (an outdated usage) or subjectively experienced emotion: “His reactions and affects to the painting were dramatic.”
Writers often confuse than with then, or they mistype the proper word and then miss the error when editing. Than is used for comparison and then is used as a reference to time. For example, “Tom is taller than Harry” in contrast to “Harry drove to the house and then parked his car in the garage.”
3. Revise, Revise, Revise
A first draft is just that, a first draft. Always find time, whether it is weeks, days, or even minutes, to revise your writing. You should also read the piece aloud to detect errors or awkward sentences. Additionally, make sure that you vary the sentence lengths and paragraph lengths. Readers appreciate variety; there is nothing more off-putting than a solid page of text. Finally, ask someone else to read your work. A person looking at your work for the first time will notice grammatical errors, awkward sentences, and typos that you may have missed.
Your writing is a reflection on you, so take the time to make sure it is your best. Please e-mail me any writing tips that you have found helpful, and I will compile them for a future article.
• Garner on Language and Writing. PC # 1610057. 2007. To order online, visit www.ababooks.org.