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'What Great Writers Can Teach Lawyers and Judges': Precision and Conciseness

Last month's edition of the Texas Bar Journal has an interesting article by Douglas E. Abrams, a law professor at the University of Missouri, entitled, "What Great Writers Can Teach Lawyers and Judges." The article, which is part one of two, presents wisdom from great nonlawyer writers about two key elements of writing that are equally important in the legal world: precision and conciseness.

1. Precision

Abrams notes that outside the legal world, readers are willing to "recast inartful words or sentences in our minds" to cure ambiguity because we know what the author intended. Legal writing, however, often faces a hostile reader who is motivated to "find the weaknesses in the prose, even perhaps to find ways of turning the words against their intended meaning.” For example, parties seeking to get around contractual obligations will seek loopholes that may exist in a particular a clause or word. On this point, Abrams notes the words of French writer Guy de Maupassant, who challenges writers as follows:

Whatever you want to say, there is only one word to express it, only one verb to give it movement, only one adjective to qualify it. You must search for that word, that verb, that adjective, and never be content with an approximation, never resort to tricks, even clever ones, and never have recourse to verbal sleight-of-hand to avoid a difficulty.

 2. Conciseness

Abrams presents a number of great quotes from legendary writers such as Shakespeare, Hemingway and even Dr. Seuss on the issue of conciseness. All of them agree that when it comes to writing, "less is more." Surely there are judges out there nodding in agreement with Abrams when he argues that conciseness is the key to holding a reader's attention to the finish line. Where a writer can convey a message efficiently in five pages, Abrams warns, the writer risks losing the audience by using ten. This is particularly true in modern society, where innumerable alternatives for the reader such as newspapers, magazines and blogs are just a mouse-click away.

How can less be more when writing? Nobel Prize-winner Elie Wiesel explains that “even when you cut, you don't:"

Writing is not like painting where you add. ... Writing is more like a sculpture where you remove. ... Even those pages you remove somehow remain. There is a difference between a book of two hundred pages from the very beginning, and a book of two hundred pages which is the result of an original eight hundred pages. The six hundred pages are there. Only you don't see them.

The entire article, which collects dozens of great quotes on the subject, can be read here.

Posted by Bruce Carton on August 19, 2011 at 04:45 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)


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