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Writing Tips from Gary Kinder

Words Matter: Writing the First Three Sentences

By Steven Taylor

Lawyer, writer and writing instructor Gary Kinder wants lawyers to get to the point quickly in their communications with clients. “Too often lawyers write a letter to the client and won’t tell them the answer to the client’s question,” he says. Or if they do, they frequently bury the answer pages deep into the letter.

In part one of our interview, Kinder, who’s widely known for creating the popular WordRake editing software, offered four tips for concise writing. Here he gets even more specific with a helpful blueprint for the first three sentences of any client correspondence.

1. Immediately give context to the client. “The first sentence should always be a sentence of reference,” Kinder says. “That consists of three things: a name, a date and a method. So you could write, ‘Dear Board Members, As Charlie Jones requested in his letter of December 22, 2013 ….’ Right there you have Charlie, you’ve got that it’s a letter and you’ve got a date. Or it could be, ‘Dear Sheryl, After you left my office yesterday.’ So to be clear: At the very beginning of your memorandum you want to know who did it, when they did it and how they did it.”

2. Give clients your conclusion in the second sentence. Kinder says he’s often seen correspondence in which a lawyer writes paragraph after paragraph explaining the law before finally answering the client’s question. He gives an example of a client asking about a proposed new name for a product. “Unfortunately, too often the lawyer will reply in the second sentence something like this: ‘You asked me to look into a new name for your coffee, and this presents an interesting legal question.’ The hidden message is: If it weren’t so interesting it wouldn’t be quite as expensive. And then the attorney launches into this long explanation and history and exemptions and exceptions to the exemptions. Finally, 12 pages later, you get an answer saying, ‘No, you can’t use that name.’”

3. Provide a to-do list. In the third sentence, the attorney should write that because of the conclusion (stated in sentence two), you, the client, need to do a few things. “Then offset and bullet those points,” Kinder says, “so that on the front page of the memorandum there’s something eye-catching — a list of things that need action — and they can’t miss it.”

Words matter. If you can write clearly and concisely in your communications with clients, you can provide better, cost-effective counsel.

Steven T. Taylor is an award-winning journalist living in Portland, OR, who has written about the legal profession for nearly 20 years. He’s also a college professor who teaches nonfiction.

Illustration ©iStockPhoto.com

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Steven Taylor

Steven T. Taylor is an award-winning journalist living in Portland, Oregon, who has written about the legal profession for more than 15 years. He’s also had more than 750 editorials, essays and other works published by more than 60 organizations and publications, including The Nation, The Washington Post, Public Citizen, ABA Law Practice and Of Counsel. He is a full professor at Oregon College of Art and Craft, where he teaches non-fiction writing, and a performance artist who explores socio-political issues in a medium he calls “journalistic theater.”

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