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Tighten Your Writing: Heed the Six Signs

By | Dec.12.12 | Communicating, Daily Dispatch, Get to the Point, Skills

“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short, or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”

So goes the infamous Rule 13 from the original Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style.

Great idea. How do I do that? These six “signs,” culled over 25 years of teaching lawyers how to improve their writing, will lead you directly to words and phrases that add no meaning. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has awarded six patents to my company, WordRake, editing software based on these and similar signs.

Sign 1: “.” (the Period)

 You will find more unnecessary words at the end of sentences than you ever imagined. This “overexplaining” is information your reader already knows or easily assumes. Because this typically occurs at the end of a sentence, find each period and examine the last few words. Does your reader need them? If they form a prepositional phrase, the likelihood increases you can remove some or all. If you have time and the assignment warrants, also look for unnecessary prepositional phrases elsewhere.

But the facts of Hall are not analogous to the present matter.

Upon Court approval, this Stipulation will become an Order of the Court and the Debtors’ failure to comply with the terms set forth herein shall be deemed a failure to obey a Court Order.

Sign 2: “It”

Whenever you see this word at the beginning of a sentence or a clause, you can usually delete several words. This is called the “windup before the pitch.” Some judges call it “throat clearing.” You will usually see a “that” a few words after; it is part of the pattern.

It is our understanding that a dispute has arisen regarding Draw Request #15, which resulted in your funding the entire Draw Request, not just the portion representing cost overruns and change orders.

It should be noted that this did not prevent Segur from compensating Haywood directly for commissions earned on Sprint.

Sign 3: “Or”

About half the time you see this word, what follows it merely repeats what precedes it. Get rid of one.

At no point did eTelecom represent or even suggest that the 2007 Growth Plan was subject to negotiation.

The classic example is “whether or not.” Always remove the “or not.” If that makes the sentence awkward, then put it back:

Whether or not the list ever existed is immaterial to whether the Will can be admitted to probate.

Whether or not the judge admits the Will to probate, we will file the motion.

Sign 4: “Of”

Whenever you see “of,” look around it for words you don’t need; “of” will help you spot more “needless” words than any other:

Debtors agreed to pay the estate $483.34 per month, for a period of 12 months, beginning on or before September 01, 2011.

Subsequent to the rendering of this decision, federal agencies codified procedures for handling subpoenas in an attempt to more formally handle what became known as “Touhy requests.”

Sign 5: “In”

Out of 145 prepositions in the English language, “in” introduces more pat junk phrases than the other 144 combined.

The court in that case held that it did not, finding instead that ….

And continuing with the last example above:

Subsequent to this decision, federal agencies codified procedures for handling subpoenas in an attempt to more formally handle what became known as “Touhy requests.”

Sign 6: “As”

Treat “as” like “of.” Look around it for extraneous words.

Trustee and the Debtors agree as follows:

Continuing again with the Touhy example:

Subsequent to this decision, federal agencies codified procedures for handling subpoenas to more formally handle what became known as “Touhy requests.”

Using these signs to remove most of the unnecessary words, you now can see other unnecessary words that have no signs:

Subsequent to this decision, federal agencies codified procedures for handling subpoenas to more formally handle “Touhy requests.”

Original sentence:

Subsequent to the rendering of this decision, federal agencies codified procedures for handling subpoenas in an attempt to more formally handle what became known as “Touhy requests.”

Streamlined sentence:

Subsequent to this decision, federal agencies codified procedures for handling “Touhy requests.”

Heed the Rules!

Writing “needless” words forces your readers to determine which ones they “need” to understand what you are trying to tell them. By removing words with no meaning, you make your readers’ job much easier. It’s an evolutionary process. Heeding these simple signs will help to set that process in motion for a clearer, more concise document.

Lawyer Gary Kinder has taught over 1,000 writing programs to law firms like Jones Day, Sidley, and WilmerHale. He is also the author of the critically acclaimed New York Times best-seller Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea. For the American Bar Association, he has created writing webinars and the online CLE series “Advanced Writing for Lawyers.” Recently, he founded the software company WordRake, the first editing software for lawyers. Email him at garyk@wordrake.com.

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