Legal Writing Principle 5:
Cut every word, every sentence, every idea, and every section that isn’t changing the outcome.
By Joe Regalia
Simple ideas win cases. Every good lawyer knows that. The more complicated and diffuse your points, the less likely your reader will understand your arguments, much less agree with them. So why do lawyers insist on drowning out their winning facts and points with mountains of useless noise—tangential facts, citations, and more? I’m not sure, but it certainly doesn’t help them.
Cognitive science tells us that every extra fact (or even word) has the power to lose your reader. You have a stunningly short window to convince people. And the harder they have to work for the points that matter, the more they will question your arguments and the less they will want to come to your side.
With this in mind it becomes obvious why writing concisely and cutting excess is not just a “best practice”—it’s an essential ingredient for persuading others. By pruning away potential distractions and confusions, you inject the winning stuff right into your readers mind while they are still open to it.
Cutting the noise must happen at every level of your legal writing: Sections, arguments, paragraphs, sentences, and words. Pollution at any of these levels can drown out the winning stuff and make all your work for naught.
For big picture cutting, ruthlessly apply the principle that what is not directly helping you is probably hurting you. Stated differently: If you can’t explain to yourself with conviction why this section or argument is likely to push your reader in a favorable direction, it’s nearly always going to cut against you by distracting or confusing.
Other Tools for Cutting Clutter
Use red flags. This technique involves using a list of red-flag words, phrases, and other signals to find areas ripe for cutting. For example, common throat-clearing words and phrases like “it is,” “there is,” "as such,” “the fact that,” “pursuant to,” “with regard to” and so on; generic filler words like “thing"; and excessive prepositions like “of.”
Use content word editing. This technique has you pluck out the content words from your sentences—then start on a clean slate, rebuilding a new sentence with just those powerful words in hand. Circle or underline just a few key content words that you really want your reader to focus on. Jot those down and erase the old sentence. This forces you out of your normal writing pattern. Now you rewrite the sentence to focus your reader on the content that you care about using only as many words as you need.
Take time away to get the “fresh reader” perspective. You cannot get into the right cutting mindset unless you build in enough time before your writing deadlines so that you can set your document aside for a while (preferably at least a day) and come back to it.
Use others to get the “fresh reader” perspective. No one can spot darlings to cut like a truly fresh reader.