Daily Dispatch

Get to the Point

How to Clean Up Your Writing

By | May.27.15 | Communicating, Daily Dispatch, Get to the Point, Legal Writing, Skills

Get to the Point

Maybe you’ve read the stories about the candidate who wasn’t hired because of spelling errors in the resumé. Or the firm that lost the bid in response to a request for proposal because of grammatical errors on its website.

It’s Not Just Lawyers Making These Mistakes

In the past two days, I read:

  • A travel book stating that Napoleon ordered his soldiers to dynamite Moscow’s St. Basil Cathedral, but “Miraculously, a rain shower distinguished the fuses the Frenchmen were trying to light.”
  • An article on a website for CFOs advising them to consider customer service improvements from the customer’s “prospective.”
  • A newspaper headline “Clog guru, in L.A. for biannual fittings, keeps devotees at her feet.” The body of the article states that the shoemaker returns to her prior hometown for “two yearly visits.” Apparently, she comes at the same two times each year, not every two years.

How credible are these writers? Would you take their advice? If you saw these kinds of errors in legal writing, would you be more or less persuaded by the writer’s arguments?

I’m mystified by lawyers who don’t know the difference between “there,” “their” and “they’re.” Did they somehow get a J.D., but bypassed third grade?

The state of prospective lawyers’ writing and grammar is so bad that about 25 years ago accredited law schools started requiring some 1L’s to take a remedial writing course. These are people who made good grades in college and did well on the LSAT.

Three Solutions

Careful proofreading should catch these errors. Ideally, both the writer and another person should proofread the document. Some errors may slip in because the writer was rushed. However, when the writer doesn’t recognize the error, proofreading one’s own work will not help.

I’ve talked about using editing software to cut down on verbiage. Those programs will catch some, but not all, usage errors.

For your most important writing jobs, consider hiring a professional editor. You can find ads for freelance editors and ghostwriters in bar journals and pretty much all over the web. Search for “legal editors.”

Simple, But Not Easy

You can become a good writer by reading good writing, and by that I mean books: fiction, non-fiction, any kind of prose that holds your interest. Audiobooks don’t count for this purpose. Having just endorsed reading just about anything brought out by a publisher, I must concede that in 2015 even mostly good writing can have grammatical errors. (I’m talking to you, Aasif Mandvi.)

You’re busy, I get that. With all the time you spend on your practice, there’s hardly a minute for a personal life. So who has time to read books? Well, you do, with a little forethought.

How much time do you spend surfing social media or playing online games? Wasn’t that you fiddling with your phone waiting for the server to bring your Chicken Caesar? Change your habit so your default time-filler is reading a book. Keep your e-reader or a paperback in your briefcase. Download a book to your smartphone. Some professionals stow books for their vacation, zooming through one after another on airplanes and at the beach.

Plenty of Help Is Available

Reading “Get to the Point” on Attorney At Work is a good first step. You can get small doses of grammar tips from many other sources on the web, too. Ragan Communications and Grammar Girl are two good ones.

Grammar can be funny. “Things That Make Us [Sic]: The Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar Takes on Madison Avenue, Hollywood, the White House, and the World” recently made me laugh. I’m looking forward to reading “Word Court: Wherein Verbal Virtue Is Rewarded, Crimes Against the Language Are Punished, and Poetic Justice Is Done.”

Feel Good About Your Writing

Clients want a lawyer who can skillfully communicate and persuade. Just as you read new law to keep up your lawyering skills, you should also work on improving your legal writing. When you know you are at the top of your legal writing game, you will exude the confidence that gains clients, succeeds in negotiation and persuades judges.

Theda C. “Teddy” Snyder mediates workers’ compensation cases throughout California. An attorney since 1977, she has practiced in a variety of settings and is a frequent speaker and author on topics impacting settlement and the business of law. She is a Fellow of the College of Law Practice Management. Based in Los Angeles, Teddy can be found at www.WCMediator.com, and you can follow her on Twitter @WCMediator.

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4 Responses to “How to Clean Up Your Writing”

  1. Drea
    27 May 2015 at 7:06 am #

    Grammar Girl is my go-to source. I have her bookmarked, and one of her books at each desk-home and office.

  2. Drea
    27 May 2015 at 7:08 am #

    I’m looking up whether there should be a semicolon instead of a comma right now. LOL.

  3. Rick Perry
    27 May 2015 at 7:44 am #

    I cannot resist responding, given the topic.

    It should be “[d]id they somehow get a J.D. but ‘bypass’ the third grade?”

    According to Merriam Webster’s online dictionary, “nonfiction” is not hyphenated.

    If accents are used, the word is “résumé” (two accents, not one).

    I also sympathize with you and do not mean to criticize. It is incredibly hard to proofread one’s own work. I am constantly annoyed at myself for the number of errors that find their way into my own writing, despite my having reviewed the text several times.

  4. cj stevens
    27 May 2015 at 10:46 am #

    ” Some errors may slip in” … using “may” for “might” is a member of my herd of pet peeves. I never give permission for errors to slip in, i.e., they may not, but they might get through anyway.


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