Simplicity, clarity, and plainness

Plain English Comments Off

“Simplicity is widely praised and narrowly practiced.” Robert Gunning, The Technique of Clear Writing 68 (1968).

In legal writing, this truth applies to clarity and plainness: many recommend them; few execute.

New book on legal writing

Improvement, Sources Comments Off

I just finished reading Sketches on Legal Style by Mark Cooney, and I loved it. Lots of practical advice in a readable, engaging book. I recommend it.

COONEY-SKETCHES

From the publisher’s website:

Who says legal writing is a dull subject? This collection of lively, offbeat short pieces explores legal style like no book you’ve read before. But be warned: you just might learn something while you’re smiling. Through a colorful cast of characters, learn how legal writers can use plain language and careful syntax to produce clearer, stronger, and more persuasive documents.

Will legalese devotee Ebenezer Scribe change his ways after receiving visits from four clarity-minded ghosts?

Will Colonel Ketchup’s passive-voice phrasing obscure whodunit?

Will Editor Man defeat his most formidable foe yet: a dense block of statutory text containing, among other things, a 142-word sentence?

And much more . . .

Visiting lectures at Arizona State

Teaching Legal Writing Comments Off

I am pleased to report that my visit to Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law was wonderful. I gave two lectures there, and both were well received. I visited a first-year LRW course and took some questions. I attended the writing faculty’s weekly meeting. It was a fantastic experience.

Spending time with the outstanding faculty in their Legal Method and Writing program was a great opportunity.

I offer a personal, special thank you to Professor Susan Chesler and Associate Dean Judy Stinson.

_____

The visit and my two lectures while there were made possible by support from ALWD through a grant to support the Legal Communication & Rhetoric Visiting Scholars Program.

Visiting Scholar at Arizona State–O’Connor

Plain English, Teaching Legal Writing Comments Off

I am honored to be invited to be a Legal Communication & Rhetoric Visiting Scholar at Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law—Arizona State University on November 7-8, 2013.

The visit and my two lectures while there are made possible by support from ALWD through a grant to support the Legal Communication & Rhetoric Visiting Scholars Program.

More information here.

Legal Writing: Precision and Persuasion (CLE)

Improvement, Law Practice Comments Off

Please visit this page:

Legal Writing: Precision and Persuasion

To attend a 6-hour CLE seminar on legal writing. The seminar includes 1 hour of ethics credit.

The seminar presenters are Wayne Schiess and Kamela Bridges.

Attend our new legal-writing seminar

Improvement, Law Practice Comments Off

I’d love to see you at a new legal-writing CLE seminar offered by UTCLE on November 15 in Austin, Texas:

Legal Writing: Precision and Persuasion

I’ll be presenting the seminar with my colleague Kamela Bridges.

What my book is worth

Sources Comments Off

I wrote a book in 2005 called Better Legal Writing, and its retail price is $34.95. The publisher refuses to sell it through Amazon.com because Amazon insists on a discounted price. But private parties and small booksellers can sell it on Amazon—these people are called “Amazon Sellers.”

I looked on Amazon to see if it was being sold there, and yes, 6 Amazon Sellers are selling it at prices ranging from $160 to $430. Those prices are silly, and no one should or will ever buy it at those prices. Why have they priced it so high? They’re volume sellers, and they spend as little time as possible listing their inventory. So they don’t do any research to see what the book is actually worth, or what it’s actually selling for on the publisher’s website—information I found in 1 minute. But of course, I know where to look.

Besides, when Amazon Sellers list a book for sale on Amazon (I have done this) they normally just look at the price Amazon itself is charging and price theirs accordingly. Amazon even suggests an appropriate price for you. But as you may recall, Amazon itself isn’t selling my book because the publisher won’t discount it. So these Amazon Sellers are just guessing (and guessing very high) or are setting their prices based on the prices of other Amazon Sellers, which, of course, are all way too high.

So I decided to tell them. I emailed all 6 Amazon sellers who are selling my book, identified myself as the author, told them the retail price is $34.95, and included a link to the price on the publisher’s website. I heard nothing from 4 of them. One emailed back to say there was an error in his pricing system and he would adjust the price and thank you.

And one—who is listing my book at $190—emailed back to say “Thank you for bringing that to my attention. Since the item is inscribed it is considered collectible and has a higher price on Amazon. Thanks so much!”

So someone to whom I gave a signed copy has sold it or given it away, and it’s now being sold in the secondary market. Will I write the seller back and say my signature surely isn’t worth a $155 premium? No. Since all these books are being re-sold, I get no royalty anyway. I just thought it was funny.

A lesson in e-mail

Uncategorized Comments Off

“Dad, I just sent you an email I’m working on. Will you read it over for me? Remember the company I work for is selling its business at the Lexington location?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, the manager asked me to write an e-mail message to send to the customers to let them know about the ownership change and that they’ll be working with a new company, not us. Could you check it to make sure it’s grammatically correct and makes sense?”

“Sure.”

“I need it in an hour.”

“Okay. I’ll go open it now.”

I read the message, which was about 8 paragraphs long. The tone was friendly, and the message was clear. The grammar was fine. I started to insert a few comments suggesting a few minor things. Then I read it again. It needs work on organization, I thought. It’s 8 paragraphs, which is a lot to ask someone to read in e-mail, but it didn’t flow—wasn’t well connected. Each paragraph was about a new topic, but there were no transitions. It needed something.

I stopped inserting comments and decided to rewrite it in a question-and-answer format, like FAQs. I created about 5 questions, and then I revised and moved the text around to form answers. For example, after an introduction announcing the change in ownership, I inserted a question:

Can I still have my event at the Lexington location?

Yes, . . .

Will the policies and prices be the same?

Yes, . . .

And so on. I was feeling quite proud of myself, and I sent the rewrite. I called the next day to ask how things had gone.

“Thanks, dad. Everyone liked the Q & A format, but they decided we should call each customer instead of sending an email.”

__________

If you’d like to comment on this or any post, please email me. I’ve had to disable comments because of excessive spam. Sorry.

Rhetoric: Three more techniques

Persuasion Comments Off

In this post I add three more techniques to the three introduced in a previous post. Here I describe anaphora, epistrophe, and chiasmus, three techniques of classical rhetoric—the effective and persuasive use of language. You’ll likely recognize these techniques, and you might be using the first two already. My understanding of them comes from Ward Farnsworth, Classical English Rhetoric (2010).

Anaphora means repeating words at the beginnings of successive phrases or clauses.

Standard: There is no doubt who committed the crimes: Mitchell hid under the stairs, assaulted Ms. Latham, and stole her purse.

Anaphora: There is no doubt who committed the crimes: Mitchell hid under the stairs, Mitchell assaulted Ms. Latham, and Mitchell stole her purse. (Repeats the subject)

Another before-and-after example:

Standard: The Debtor repaid his wife, friends, and brother-in-law—but not the Bank.

Anaphora: The Debtor repaid his wife, repaid his friends, and repaid his brother-in-law—but he did not repay the Bank. (Repeats the verb)

Anaphora creates emphasis through what Farnsworth calls a “hammering effect.” Farnsworth at 16. The repeated words are likely to be noticed and remembered. Id. The repetition also creates expectations—the reader expects the pattern to be continued, so disrupting the pattern becomes an opportunity for emphasis. Id. For example, in the sentence about the Debtor, repeating the verb repaid sets up the expectation that it will continue, but then the verb changes to did not repay, emphasizing the contrast.

Epistrophe means repeating words at the end of successive phrases or clauses.

Standard: The defendant followed, stalked, and harassed Mr. Taylor.

Epistrophe: The defendant followed Mr. Taylor, stalked Mr. Taylor, and harassed Mr. Taylor. (Repeats the object)

Another before-and-after example:

Standard: Mitchell illegally purchased, modified, and sold the rifle.

Epistrophe: Mitchell’s purchasing the rifle was illegal, his modifying the rifle was illegal, and his selling the rifle was illegal. (Repeats the predicate)

Epistrophe also uses the hammering effect, but Farnsworth suggests it’s a bit more subtle because “the repetition does not become evident until each time a sentence or clause ends.” Id. at 32. Added to the hammering effect is the placement of the repeated words at the end—a natural place of emphasis: “The end is emphatic because it makes the last impression.” David Lambuth, The Golden Book on Writing 26 (1983). Thus, epistrophe adds hammering repetition to the emphasis that naturally falls on a concluding word or phrase.

Chiasmus means repeating words or phrases in reverse order. It’s also described as inverted parallelism or an ABBA pattern. A famous example: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” See Farnsworth at 97. The key words are country and you, repeated in this order: country-you-you-country.

Standard: It was the defendant who stalked Mr. Taylor, not the other way around.

Chiasmus: It was the defendant who stalked Mr. Taylor, not Mr. Taylor who stalked the defendant.

Another before-and-after example:

Standard: Although the Bank has negotiated in good faith with the Borrower, the Borrower has not reciprocated.

Chiasmus: Although the Bank has negotiated in good faith with the Borrower, the Borrower has not negotiated in good faith with the Bank.

Chiasmus, according to Farnsworth, “calls attention to itself.” Id. at 98. I agree. It’s a technique that might, in formal legal writing, come off as oratorical, pretentious, literary. And literary style isn’t always right for legal writing because legal writing isn’t always like literature. Legal writers should use chiasmus with caution: “You should write at most one or two in a document . . . .” Ethel G. Romm, A Chiasmus and Contrast Can Help You Win, 70 A.B.A.J. 158, 158 (1984).

Yet a simple chiasmus can be quite memorable:

State boundaries cannot extend beyond the national boundary. . . . That would mean Texas was not annexed to the U.S., but that the U.S. was annexed to Texas. Id.

 

Caution is appropriate for all rhetorical techniques, but I recommend adding these three to your persuasive-writing toolkit.

_____

If you’d like to comment on this or any post, please email me. I’ve had to disable comments because of excessive spam. Sorry.

Rhetoric: Three Simple Techniques

Persuasion Comments Off

This post describes polysyndeton, asyndeton, and isocolon, three simple techniques of classical rhetoric—the effective and persuasive use of language.

Don’t let the fancy names put you off: you’ll recognize these techniques, and you might be using them already. My own understanding of them comes from Classical English Rhetoric, by Ward Farnsworth (the Texas Law Dean) and from The Elements of Legal Style, by Bryan A. Garner.

Polysyndeton means using conjunctions between all the items in a series.

Standard: The flag is red, white, and blue.

Polysyndeton: The flag is red and white and blue.

Thus, with polysyndeton, you might do this:

The background check showed charges of vandalism and gambling and fraud and assault.

To improve your writing, you must study and practice and accept critique.

In legal writing, polysyndeton can supply two types of emphasis. First, “the result is to emphasize every one of the items singly . . . .” Farnsworth, at 128. The extra conjunctions invite readers to think of the items separately rather than as a group. Second, polysyndeton tends to emphasize the sheer number of items in the list. Id.

Compare

The defendant’s responses were hasty, terse, and superficial.
with
The defendant’s responses were hasty and terse and superficial.

 

Asyndeton means omitting the conjunction, typically before the last item in a series.

Standard: The flag is red, white, and blue.

Asyndeton: The flag is red, white, blue.

With asyndeton, you might do this:

The background check showed charges of vandalism, gambling, fraud, assault.

To improve your writing, you must study, practice, accept critique.

Asyndeton creates emphasis because omitting the conjunction is “irregular and unexpected.” Farnsworth, at 147. Although asyndeton can improve the rhythm of some sentences, Farnsworth also acknowledges it can seem “mannered.” Id. at 148. He’s right. He might have said “literary” or even “showy.” In general, legal writers should use asyndeton cautiously.

Compare

The defendant’s responses were hasty, terse, and superficial.
with
The defendant’s responses were hasty, terse, superficial.

 

Isocolon means a series of similarly structured phrases, clauses, or sentences of the same length. It’s a form of parallelism.

Standard: The flag is red, white, and blue.

Isocolon: The flag is red; it is white; it is blue

Isocolon: The flag is red. The flag is white. The flag is blue.

Using isocolon, you might do this:

The background check showed charges of vandalism, charges of gambling, charges of fraud, and charges of assault.

The background check showed charges of vandalism; it showed charges of gambling; it showed charges of fraud; it showed charges of assault.

To improve your writing, you must confront your faults, practice your skills, and study others’ writing.

Using isocolon can “produce pleasing rhythms,” according to Farnsworth, and allows writers to use a parallel structure to reinforce parallel substance. Id. at 74. But consider this example:

The defendant’s responses were inappropriate. They were hasty. They were terse. They were superficial.

The tone begins to sound oratorical, as Farnsworth notes. Id. So although isocolon is appropriate for legal writing, it’s more common in speech.

In fact, all three techniques appear more frequently in speeches and literature than in formal legal writing. Outside legal writing, all three can be used in more sophisticated ways than shown here. Still, I recommend adding these techniques to your toolkit for persuasive legal writing. And as with any form of rhetoric and persuasion, be wise: before resorting to classical rhetoric, make sure your writing is clear, direct, correct.


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