legal writing

Distilling Your Story’s Takeaways

Choosing the right words is not an easy thing, but it's especially challenging when you're writing about a legal issue. Learn to distill the core ideas of your story into a compelling and clear argument.
  • Joe Regalia
Distilling takeaways is a super power, especially for your fact sections. 
Before diving in, let’s remember an all-important truth for legal readers: They usually only remember a few takeaways from a document as a whole, and as they are reading, they remember only a few takeaways from each section (that, hopefully, will lead to those major document-level takeaways you really care about). The same goes for your paragraphs: Readers might keep in their mind one main takeaway from each paragraph as they leave it and move on to the next. That’s why it’s so important that paragraphs all build on one another towards a goal. Just like your sections should. 
Otherwise, who knows what your readers will walk away with?
One other preliminary point here: Your facts are often just as important, if not more important, than the law. And I’m not just talking about cases where you have good facts. The truth is, legal readers always care about the facts to some extent. If you are analyzing a pure question of law, readers are still thinking about things like: Who are these parties? Why do they have so much invested in this legal question? How will different answers to the legal questions affect them and others? 
And if the facts are generally against you, it’s even more important that you have strategies for rehabilitating or deemphasizing them. Because the other side will use those facts to their advantage, and good chance your audience won’t even listen to the legal stuff at that point.  
Let’s start with the big picture facts and zoom in to the smaller picture. 
We are assuming you’ve already spent a lot of time sifting through the facts and, more importantly, brainstorming the big-picture takeaways you think will be most useful for readers. Those big-picture takeaways likely won’t number more than a few in most cases, although if there are tons of facts, you may have more. What makes these takeaways useful is either that they 1) help readers analyze the coming legal questions in your analysis or 2) put your readers in a favorable headspace somehow–towards your client, towards the situation, or at the least, removes some point about the facts that you worry readers may be distracted about. 
We are assuming you’ve already spent a lot of time sifting through the facts and, more importantly, brainstorming the big-picture takeaways you think will be most useful for readers. Those big-picture takeaways likely won’t number more than a few in most cases, although if there are tons of facts, you may have more. What makes these takeaways useful is either that they 1) help readers analyze the coming legal questions in your analysis or 2) put your readers in a favorable headspace somehow–towards your client, towards the situation, or at the least, removes some point about the facts that you worry readers may be distracted about. 
At the big-picture, consider using headings to develop and highlight these major takeaways about your facts. If you’re like most legal writers, you’ll find this strategy is incredibly helpful for a few reasons. First, you’ll use more headings, which readers generally love because it makes the facts easier to navigate (and come back to later). Second, it will force you to refine your paragraphs and figure out why they are there. If you can’t bring a few paragraphs together to make a bigger overarching takeaway that you can turn into a heading, that’s a big red flag that the paragraphs aren’t doing enough, that they are unfocused, or that you just haven’t figured out the main factual points readers should be leaving with. 
So take a lot of time to work with your factual story and figure out how to categorize all those details into a short set of related takeaways. Organize the facts by those main takeaways and use your headings to make the takeaways clear for readers. 
Let’s look at an example. 
A lawyer was representing a plaintiff in a discrimination case at the appellate level. His fact section (the statement of the case) had all the details you’d expect: The alleged harassment, the company’s response, and the procedural history. There were a few headings operating as a generic label rather than conveying takeaways from the story. The problem is, for readers to figure out what they need from the fact section (which spanned several pages in this case), they have to do all the work: 
i. Statement of the Case
  • A. Factual Background
  • B. Procedural History
Let’s take two paragraphs from the lawyer’s facts within his “Factual Background” section (we’ve changed some language to help anonymize the real lawyer who filed this on the public record). These were just buried in between other paragraphs about different time periods and events. 
Consider how we could come up with a takeaway for readers from these two paragraphs–and use it as a heading to make it easy for readers to leave with that takeaway: 
“In 2020, Ms. Stook started a new position as a Senior Janitor at the company. The first day she showed up for work, a note waited taped to her desk that read ‘Welcome Bit$#.’ This note set the tone for the rest of the year. Ms. Stook faced harassment after harassment. Nearly every week some new insult was slung at her. Coworkers and supervisors used racial slurs when giving her tasks. They continued to leave racist notes on her desk. During one incident, Ms. Stook was walking to the bathroom when a coworker pushed her into a wall, telling her to ‘get out of the way idiot.’ 

There were numerous incidents of harassment all year long. The harassment was carried out by at least three coworkers and two supervisors. One supervisor, James Terry, was Ms. Stook’s direct report. The other supervisor, Michael Patlov, was a general manager in the janitorial department. All three coworkers who carried out the harassment, Mary Holt, Sam Perrins, and Higgs Taylor, worked in Ms. Stook’s division–so she was forced to see them each day.”
Will readers remember every particular incident? Will they remember the name of the coworkers? No. 
What takeaway did the author want readers to leave with, though? Likely that a ton of deplorable harassment was inflicted on Ms. Stook by a variety of key folks in 2020. 
That was clearly the author’s goal. What’s great about working towards takeaways is that, now that we know what we want readers to get from these paragraphs, we can craft a heading that will make it easy for readers to get just what we want. 
But keep in mind that when you’re crafting a takeaway for readers, you’re trying to do more than just notate a quick summary to remember. You are aiming to dish up the most powerful, moving, useful information in a simple package readers can take with them. Often the best takeaways use specific details or pithy language to drive the point home.
Also keep in mind that when it comes to telling the factual story, one goal will be to give readers the context they need for the analysis or legal arguments that come later. But you will usually have other practical goals for the story, too. Like making your client look favorable, nudging readers to be less favorable towards opposing parties, and framing events so that readers feel sympathy towards your client or outrage towards others (to name a few). 
Also keep in mind that when it comes to telling the factual story, one goal will be to give readers the context they need for the analysis or legal arguments that come later. But you will usually have other practical goals for the story, too. Like making your client look favorable, nudging readers to be less favorable towards opposing parties, and framing events so that readers feel sympathy towards your client or outrage towards others (to name a few). 
Like this: 
  • A. In 2020, Ms. Stook endured a string of harassment from three coworkers and two supervisors–including racial slurs, racist notes left on her desk, being pushed against a wall, and being ordered to do things like clean toilets because she is ‘used to it.’”
Another power of figuring out the main takeaways you want to convey in a section is that we can use this single point to refine the paragraphs themselves, cutting out clutter, pulling in details from other sections that fit better here, and more. Because you just have one, simple goal now. Sell the takeaway. 
Let’s move to that small picture. We’ve got these two paragraphs that should be selling that central takeaway (which is now a helpful heading). Our first goal should be to distill each paragraph’s takeaway into a clear, specific point that will capture the paragraph’s main message–and build towards our bigger section takeaway we just came up with. We should also cut any sentences not helping with those goals–and we could also bring in other details or sentences from other places if they would go better here now that we know what this section’s focus is. 
The details in the first paragraph are about all the harassing incidents. And the second paragraph is all about the harassers themselves. So we should craft first sentences for these paragraphs that dish those takeaways up. We can also cut a couple of sentences that are not helpful enough for our new goal: 
  • Ms. Strook faced constant harassment throughout 2020: She was called racial slurs, left racist notes, shoved into a wall, and more. The first day she showed up for work, a note waited taped to her desk that read ‘Welcome Bit$#.’ This note set the tone for the rest of the year. Ms. Stook faced harassment after harassment. Nearly every week some new insult was slung at her. Coworkers and supervisors used racial slurs when giving her tasks. They continued to leave racist notes on her desk. During one incident, Ms. Stook was walking to the bathroom when a coworker pushed her into a wall, telling her to ‘get out of the way idiot.’ 

    The harassers included three coworkers Ms. Strook was forced to work with each day, as well her direct supervisor and another senior manager in her department. The harassment was carried out by at least three coworkers and two supervisors. One supervisor, James Terry, was Ms. Stook’s direct report. The other supervisor, Michael Patlov, was a general manager in the janitorial department. All three coworkers who carried out the harassment, Mary Holt, Sam Perrins, and Higgs Taylor, worked in Ms. Stook’s division–so she was forced to see them each day.”
In the end, your readers remember very little. But they are actually quite good at keeping in mind a few main takeaways. Use that to your advantage: Set your sights on the most powerful takeaways you want to deliver, then guide your readers there so they can’t miss the gold. 
Joe Regalia
Write.law co-founder Joe Regalia combines his experience as both practitioner and professor to create exciting new ways to teach legal skills.  Learn more about Joe

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