Legal Writing Principle 4: Write Fluently
Fluency is the easiest way to write effective legal documents. Learn why and how to use it.
Fluency comes from cognitive science and may be the most important concept for us legal writers. It means: How easy is it for your reader to process your writing and pull out the ideas you are dishing out? For legal writers, fluency is magic. Our busy readers are desperate for the ideas and points to snap together with ease, needing little effort or hard thinking. Cognitive science says that when we read fluent writing, we tend to agree with it. We love the feeling of having “figured it out” and it will be incredibly hard for anyone else to replace that understanding with an opposing view.
Fluency brings together many things, like the simplicity of your words and sentence structure, how easy your language is to visualize and imagine, whether you seamlessly transition from sentence to sentence and idea to idea, how thoroughly you give your reader context before dropping them into complexity, how well you roadmap different ideas, whether you clearly explain how different ideas or concepts interact, and how engaging your prose is so that your readers want to keep writing.
In the end, it’s all about making it easy for a new reader to reach the same level of understanding you have. You do that by making things simple, organized, and crystal clear. Then you use devices like verbs that trigger the senses to make your writing fun to read.
Take a look at what a difference fluent writing can make. This first example is classic legal fluff—full of clunky words and complex, outdated sentence structure:
Now see the difference some fluent writing can make. Pay attention to how much easier it is not just to read this, but to process the ideas:
Or take this example, penned by Justice Kagan. Look close at how she transitions from idea to idea smoothly—one of the most powerful fluency boosters. Also note the concrete verbs and visual nouns and descriptors—like a "thin cushion of air" and "downward-directed fans."
Other Tools for Writing Fluently
Try these other techniques for making your writing as fluent and readable as possible.
Simple and Short Words
Use more simple and short words. Prefer words with few syllables, words that are familiar, and words that are specific rather than vague. So "money" or "cash" instead of "funding" and "pay" instead of “remunerate.”
Specific words are easier to visualize and remember. For example: “Three broken ribs” instead of “serious injuries” and “The police’s search” instead of “the underlying act.”
Cut State of Being Verbs
Cut bland “state of being” verbs; prefer active and visual verbs. The “state of being” verbs tell your reader little, save that you “are” or that something “is.” The verb is silent, letting other words do the work: “Is, Am, Are, Was, Were, Be, Being, Been, Have, Has, Had, Do, Does, Did, Shall, Will, Should, Would, May, Might, Must, Can, Could.”
Simply using more active and visual verbs will strengthen your writing. But to take your writing a bit further, become comfortable with the subtle effects you can achieve by selecting verbs that evoke particular emotions or images.
Always look out for nominalizations, also known as Zombie Nouns. These are verbs in noun clothing, often ending in -ion (“determination” instead of “determine”).
Subtly use descriptors (most commonly adjectives and adverbs) and only when they help. Please: Let nouns and verbs do the heavy lifting.
Replace long, boring transitions with fresher ones. The abrupt, repetitive transitions that many lawyers use are distracting. Instead use echo words and concepts from prior sentences or use fresh and varied transition phrases to move from sentence to sentence.
Simple and Familiar Words
Invite your reader into your sentences with simple, familiar words that put them at ease. Do this by: (1) avoiding introductory phrases, (2) beginning sentences with short words, and (3) beginning sentences with familiar words.
End With a Punch
The end of sentences are emphasized; it’s what your reader remembers. So put at the end what you really want your reader to remember.
Vary Your Sentence Lengths
Opt for shorter sentences, but vary your sentence lengths and your punctuation. Read good legal writing and you’ll see the same sentence patterns: Mostly shorter, a sprinkling of very-short, and the occasional elegant-long—with some diverse punctuation sprinkled in.
Choose Your Subjects Wisely
Be thoughtful about the subjects you choose and where you put them. Opt for subjects that people can visualize or connect with, like people or things; try to ensure the subject is in the first five or six words of each sentence, lest your reader get lost; and start at least a third of your sentences with the subject.
Engage the Senses
Use visual verbs, descriptors, and nouns to build images and engage the senses. More advanced techniques, like rhetorical flourishes, will do even more. Your readers will be drawn into the writing and are much more likely to remember what you tell them.
Try some of these techniques in your next writing project to ensure that all your ideas are easy to process and understand.
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