Of all the unexpected gifts from our respective law schools (debt, alcoholism), one of the worst may be a ghastly writing style that appeals only to law school professors and some judges. Don’t get me wrong. Law school provided its fair share of benefits and led many of us to successful, even happy, careers. But happy or not, we all suffer from “writing like a lawyer.”
I didn’t realize the severity of my own affliction until I began to read successful bloggers — none were attorneys. Yes, there were errors, sentence fragments and poor vocabulary but I was enthralled.
I vowed to change my own style. Here are some tips I picked up during my transformation.
1. Identify and write to your audience. There is definitely a time to write like a lawyer. Legal briefs do work better if worded in an efficient and politically correct manner that speaks to a particular judge or judicial clerk. However, with a scant number of cases actually making it to the courtroom, I doubt you are writing to many judges. A lawyer’s audience, most often, is clients and colleagues. Your clients don’t want legalese or many big words at all. Take time to identify your ideal clients. Look up the source material they are reading. Find out what interests them. Try to incorporate these writing styles into your repertoire.
2. Write shorter sentences. A short sentence is powerful. It will stand out on a page. And, with the way people scan (instead of read), the words in a short sentence are more likely to be read in full.
Remember, regardless of what you are writing — emails, blog posts, memos — your audience is likely to be reading online and on their smartphone. It’s discouraging for readers when one sentence takes up the entire screen on their phone.
3. Write shorter paragraphs. Write really short paragraphs.
See how effective that is? People’s eyes are attracted to white space on a page. They want information and they want it fast. Their eyes are drawn to parts of the page that are most likely to accomplish both of those things. If a sentence is important enough to be its own paragraph, then it is important enough to read.
4. Use common words. When you have a vast vocabulary like most attorneys (another positive gift of law school), it is easy to get your point across. You can draw on a plethora of words to help you accomplish that task. However, that doesn’t mean that people will want to read what you write.
Ernest Hemingway wrote in a simple, direct and unadorned style that truly spoke to his readers. Restricting your vocabulary to words that resonate with your audience is a good way to stop writing like a lawyer.
5. Effectively break grammar and punctuation rules. Will this make you look less intelligent? Only if it’s not purposeful.
See there. A sentence fragment can be effective if used correctly. Your colleagues and clients know you are smart. That is why they associate with you. By using overly flamboyant prose, you are not proving your intelligence; you are proving your disconnect with reality.
Nothing’s worse than a lawyer who is out of touch with today’s online reality — even though it’s more likely than not that we are. Thanks a lot, law school.