Some perfectly good words lose all their meaning through misuse or overuse. “Verbiage” is one of them. The primary entry in my dictionary defines verbiage as: “More words than are required for clarity or precision.” Sadly, verbiage is the epitome of most legal writing. Lawyers make money being persuasive. So remember, the most effective letter doesn’t bury the point in verbiage. Plain-language contracts are less likely to generate litigation. Court rules about word and page limits for briefs mean you must be your most persuasive within a finite space.
Concise writing allows you to cover more points than if you must omit some because your primary issue has filled the available pages. Some judges privately admit they appreciate shorter briefs and dread drudging through a long one. A turgid brief has one count against it from the start. To cut the verbiage from your writing, make sure every word counts and sentence construction is terse. Here are some suggestions.
Reconsider Adjectives and Adverbs
“Clearly” may be the most abused word in legal writing. Often the point being made is not clear at all. If you have made your point clearly, it will stand on its own merit. Word-search for “very” in your writing, too. Frequently, “very” adds nothing, and the sentence is more dramatic without that word: “The driveway was very long” versus “The driveway was long.” Specificity improves credibility. The reader makes the judgment call, rather than relying on the writer’s conclusion: “The driveway was 50 yards long.” Remove instances of “very” that clutter your writing.
Beware the Passive Voice
You have probably read you should not write in the passive voice, but perhaps you have not understood why. Passive sentences can muddle the message by not disclosing the entity that performed the action: “The issue was considered closed.” Or the actor may be disclosed, but the sentence is long and weak: “The issue was considered closed by the condominium board.” Subject-verb-object is the word order of a direct sentence. Direct sentences are shorter and more to the point: “The condominium board closed discussion on the issue.” Active voice is almost always the advocate’s better choice.
Yes, you are making an important point. So phrase it well the first time. Repetition does not increase the persuasiveness of your writing. On the contrary, it induces the reader to skim, searching for relevance and perhaps missing the most important argument hidden among the verbiage.
Got Editing Software?
Maybe you would like some editing help. Or perhaps you are already an excellent writer, but a little backup or confirmation seems like a good idea. Editing software can be a sound investment. Following are three options you may like to consider. They all install easily, integrate with Microsoft Word and offer a free trial. Just a caution: Use of any editing software still requires human review, not blind acceptance of the suggested change.
- WordRake was developed by a lawyer specifically for professionals. Carol Gerber reviewed the product for Attorney at Work. WordRake is easy to use and does a good job finding unnecessary words. Sample finding: It red-flags “hereby” and “thereby” as surplus.
- ClearEdits, published by ClearWriter, functions well and is the least expensive choice. Sample finding: It questions uses of “very.”
- StyleWriter performed the most thorough check. However, the comments, e.g., “This is dreadful,” do not always suggest how to fix the problem. The software creates a graphic analysis of the reviewed document, which will likely require a learning curve to master. StyleWriter markets to lawyers, but not exclusively. The company is based in the United Kingdom, which may explain some of its labels, such as “high-bog” and “high-glue” sentences. Sample finding: It changed “in a way that is informed and coherent” to “in an informed and coherent way.”
Spell-check is already part of your word processing software, and you should routinely use it before transmitting documents. This function also performs some basic grammar checks. WordPerfect’s Grammatik seems to do a better job of this than Word’s Spelling & Grammar review. When I tested it, Grammatik picked up a missing lead quotation mark, but Spelling & Grammar did not.
Heed the Experts
Versions of the quote “If I had more time, I would have made it shorter” are variously attributed to many, including Blaise Pascal, T.S. Eliot and as far back as Marcus Cicero. I guess they were on to something. Take the time to shorten your work to maximize advocacy success.