Advice to improve your legal writing can sound flippant. How many times have you heard:
“Follow the K.I.S.S. rule. Keep it short and simple.”
“Your draft should be as long as it needs to be, but no longer.”
“The route to good writing is rewriting.”
And how often have you rolled your eyes in response? Nearly every time.
We instinctively resist this advice because it doesn’t match our expectations of what legal writing should be. It turns out those expectations were wrong.
So how can a novice writer implement this seemingly circular advice to become a good legal writer?
Five Ways to Improve Your Writing
Becoming a strong writer is a process. It’s never too late—or early—to start. For instant impact, start using WordRake and PerfectIt. Then follow these five practical steps to transform your writing over time.
1. Read novels known for being concise
After a long day at the office, binge-watching Netflix may sound like the perfect end to your day. But try to make time for reading novels. Historically, lawyers have feared concision, so you’ll need to look outside the genre for examples. Try reading anything by Ernest Hemingway, who is known for his concise, objective prose. Old Man and the Sea is worth revisiting. Or check out In Cold Blood by Truman Capote for clear, direct, gripping prose. Reading these (and other) literary greats will train you to appreciate short, direct sentences and concise delivery. Through reading, you’ll improve your writing while relaxing.
2. Read great legal writers known for being simple
We are inundated with so much bad writing passed off as good that it becomes tough to tell the difference. But we do have great legal writers known for clear and simple delivery. To train yourself to appreciate simplicity and accept that complex topics can be conveyed with simple words, spend one hour per week reading great legal writers. Read Supreme Court decisions by Kagan and Scalia for the modern Court and Holmes and Brandeis for an earlier Court. In particular, read the dissents. Dissents tend to be more colorful and passionate since they are less negotiated and constrained by efforts to reach consensus. By reading these writers, you will develop a new framework for how law can be discussed.
3. Write for the sake of writing
It takes practice to develop any new skill. If you do not have serious legal writing assignments every day, then you must create opportunities to practice. This may seem difficult, but that’s exactly why great legal writing is so rare to find. You too can become an outstanding legal writer if you take this extra step. Your commitment may be public, such as blogging or entering a short story in a competition, or it may be private. But you must write daily. Even when writing recreationally, prioritize clarity and concision. Practicing your writing will make it feel more natural to write simply and concisely when it matters. Bonus: You’ll get faster, too.
4. Confront your weaknesses
Most people only think about checklists after they’re done writing. However, if you review your checklist before you start writing, you may be able to keep yourself from making the mistakes in the first place. Make a list of your overused phrases, crutch words, and throat-clearing devices. Remind yourself to consider document design. Look for opportunities to add headings and white space, shorten sentences, and break up paragraphs. Then refer to your checklist BEFORE you begin writing. Challenge yourself to avoid these problem areas. If you can reduce these issues as you write, imagine how great your document will be once you get to the final edit.
5. Get a writing coach
It’s tough to change your writing style. A writing coach will help you understand the rules, including when to break them. Writing coaches can also help you determine the strengths of your writing and what can be improved. There are two choices: internal or external. A coach outside of your firm can help you work on your writing exercises without signaling to your firm that you’re struggling. But your firm won’t worry about confidentiality issues if you use an internal writing coach. As a bonus, using available firm resources signals commitment to professional growth. Regardless of who you choose, working monthly with a personal coach will help you progress toward your goals.
The Faster Way to Get Started
Becoming a better legal writer will take years. It’s time well spent because a better writer is a better lawyer. There is simply no substitute for honing your craft and pushing your writing to be the best it can be. Don’t think, for even an instant, that artificial intelligence is going to change that. Writing is, and will always be, a human skill. However, while software can’t write for you, it can help you cut bloated prose and focus on clearly and concisely conveying what matters most. It’s immediate, inexpensive, and will pay for itself in the time it saves.
Edit for Clarity and Concision with WordRake
WordRake helps make your documents shorter and more readable. It improves legal writing style by simplifying and clarifying text, cutting legalese, and recommending plain English replacements. WordRake identifies commonly used legal words and phrases, such as “in addition to,” “pursuant to,” and “in accordance with”—and replaces them with simpler words such as “besides” and “under.” WordRake also removes redundancies and fixes cumbersome phrasing.
WordRake is lightning-fast and uses the familiar track changes feature. It shows all recommended edits at once. You may accept or reject each change. By clicking through and reviewing each change, you will be forced to rethink your writing, which helps you grow as a writer and editor.
Proofread and Polish with PerfectIt
PerfectIt with American Legal Style adds polish to your documents. It checks for over 13,000 legal-specific typos, inconsistencies, and other mistakes that no spellcheck or grammar check can find. It will also find formatting, spacing, spelling, and capitalization errors in Bluebook citations. For example, PerfectIt corrects “E.D.T.X.” to “E.D. Tex.” and incorrect citations to bankruptcy courts as “Bank.” will be corrected to “Bankr.”
PerfectIt functions like spellcheck, walking you through errors and providing recommended fixes and helpful commentary. You maintain complete control over the document by accepting or rejecting each change.
Built-In Benchmarking Tools
For writers who appreciate aggregated feedback and “scores” to benchmark your writing against, there are readability statistics built into MS Word. The Flesch Reading Ease test and the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level test have been part of MS Word for years, but many legal writers aren’t aware that this feature exists. They’re free to use, easy to set up, and (once turned on) will automatically run after spellcheck.
It takes time, practice, and effort to become a better writer. But the good news is that you can start producing better legal documents today. Using WordRake and PerfectIt means your documents will immediately and noticeably improve.
Better still, by regularly using WordRake and PerfectIt, you will learn to recognize your own mistakes and begin to self-edit as you work. As you get better, you will expect more from yourself. You’ll see more areas that could be tightened and improved and catch inconsistencies before you’re ready for final review. You’ll even start to compete against the software and challenge it to find errors in your work!
Through writing frequently and regularly using WordRake and PerfectIt, that circular advice will make sense. You’ll find short and simple is better. You’ll recognize when your draft is as long as it needs to be, but no longer. And with a little prompting from software, you’ll see that good writing is rewriting.
About the Author
Ivy B. Grey is the Vice President of Strategy and Business Development for WordRake. Prior to joining the team, she practiced bankruptcy law for ten years. In 2018, Ivy was recognized as a Fastcase 50 Honoree and included in the Women of Legal Tech list by the ABA Legal Technology Resource Center. Follow Ivy on Twitter @IvyBGrey or connect with her on LinkedIn.