4 Keys to Effective Writing

3 06 2010

Good writing skills allow us to maneuver a reader’s mind through a series of complex ideas. Success in the legal field hinges on our ability to do so on a daily basis, whether in an inner-office memo to an attorney or in a case evaluation letter to a client.  We must own our words and employ the proper mechanics at all times, even in our e-mails to co-workers. Remember these four keys as you write and watch as your writing evolves into a more powerful and effective craft.

1.) Grammar – Soon after I began my current job, I noticed a disturbing trend among e-mails from my co-workers. Inexcusable errors in grammar, syntax and verb tense filled my Inbox on a daily basis. I learned that these errors extended far beyond e-mails and into the drafting of pleadings and correspondence with attorneys, clients and carriers. Poor writing reflects badly not only on the writer, but on the firm as well. Practicing law involves communicating nuanced ideas. As such, even the most seasoned wordsmith stands to benefit from a refresher course on the “elements of style.” Pick up a copy of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style and reference it whenever in doubt.

2.) Passive VoiceAvoid the passive voice! Consider these two different sentences:

“This memo was written to discuss techniques for effective writing.”‘ (Passive Voice)

“Josh wrote this memo to discuss techniques for effective writing.” (Active Voice)

One sentence feels lazy and leaves unanswered questions in the mind of the reader (who wrote the memo?); the other oozes action by a clearly defined subject.

3.) Adverbs – Though not as egregious as using the passive voice, adverbs fill our writing with superfluous words, making the other words less effective. Instead of “Josh wrote this memo to discuss techniques for writing effectively,” say “Josh wrote this memo to discuss techniques for effective writing.”

4.) Cliche – One of my political science professors issued the following line when assigning essays: “use English that makes the Buddha smile and the angels weep.” Though my professor made a good point, his statement leaves some room for interpretation (i.e. what kind of English makes the Buddha smile and angels weep) and lacks originality. Remember, in the introduction I implored you to own your words, using cliches prevents you from truly owning your words.