Elegant Variation: Spicing Up Some Lawyerisms
Improve the effectiveness of your arguments and to improve your wording when writing legal documents.
Rarely does the “Little Summer” linger until November, but at times its stay has been prolonged until quite late in the year's penultimate month.
H.W. Fowler, sharing some elegant variation
Lawyers repeat themselves. A lot. We just can't help it. Our briefs star only a handful of characters and events—and we need to write about them down to the nitty details. So, yes, we keep repeating “the plaintiff alleges” for six pages straight.
That doesn't mean we like it. Hammering on those same words, over and over, doesn't sound good. But as you've probably discovered: Swapping out repeated words for new ones is tricky business. You might just make things confusing because now your reader starts wondering: “Is this the same thing she was talking about before? Or something new?”
And let me also say: if you need to decide between repeating yourself or confusing your reader—repeat away. I can't imagine any good ever coming from confusing your reader. The distraction turns into minutes of flipping through pages, double-checking what means what.
That's precisely my suggested yardstick to you: If you find a repeated word too close to its doppelgänger, ask whether freshening it up with some variation will bring any risk of confusion or distraction. If so, you have your answer. Don't swap in a new word just for the sake of variation if the costs aren't worth it.
So none of this:
The problem here is that shot-gunning different nouns for the same item—this close together—makes your effort at variation obvious. You also make your reader second-guess whether each is a different thing.
For repeats this close, alternating in some unambiguous pronouns are usually the best bet:
The answer for obvious repeats is often the same answer to any other clunky sentence—try rewriting the sentence from the ground up. You will nearly always find a better way to shift things around so that the repeated word doesn't even need to be said any more:
But if you need to repeat a word and can vary without confusion, do consider diversifying.
Take dialogue tags. These are words that signal someone said something. We lawyers not only use these--but also what you might think of as argument tags: words that signal what someone argued.
Our legal writing is full of he “argues” this and she “claims” that. You don’t need to stick to these same tags to avoid confusing your readers. There are endless fresh words to use instead. And many of them can target imagery and emotions.
For argue, depending on the context, you could try "assert," "maintain," "insist," "profess," "declare," "urge," "deflect," "interject," "campaign for," "contend," "volunteer," "advocate," "postulate," and the list goes on. And this works for any repeated bland word. So if you re9peat "admit" a lot, try spicing up with a "confess," "agreed" or "concede."
Look at this paragraph, which is from a real brief (I changed the names and what was taken). Notice the repetitive words and forms used to introduce what the party claims:
Now look what happens when we make these same words diverse in form and substance:
Another option for this problem of constantly writing about who said what is to simply let your reader know that a few sentences or paragraphs are all an argument or claim by a particular party or actor:
Numbers require a final mention. Numbering reasons can be a powerful tool. But watch the problem if we stick to the “no elegant variation” rule here:
You don’t need to keep using the word “first” to avoid confusing the reader about what “first” means. So diversify. For example:
Go spice up your words and add some elegant variation to your writing.
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