Lawyers are not renowned for their punchy prose. But clients do not have time to be baffled by confusing terminology and verbosity; nor do they appreciate poorly structured arguments and overtechnical explanations. What they want is clear and succinct advice.
Whether you are writing a legal agreement or an email, here are some general tips that will help you to improve your writing skills:
• Focus on your reader. Think about who will read it and what information they want. Consider whether they want back-up detail as well as upfront recommendations. Think about how much they already know about the subject, what their likely attitude to the advice will be and if there are any specific issues concerning them.
• When writing for colleagues, make your instructions clear. Avoid producing group emails that are a ‘mind dump’ of all the action points. This guarantees that something does not get done because everyone hopes someone else is doing it. Spell out who needs to do what.
• Never use the writing process to clarify your thoughts. Have a clear idea of what to write beforehand, otherwise you risk having no logical structure. Consider the main subject areas and issues you need to cover. Make sure they answer the questions: what, where, when, how, why and who. Then use each heading to brainstorm all the points related to that subject.
Next, think about the structure and decide what goes where and in what format. Only information that is essential to all readers should go in the main body of the text. Be ruthless and relegate any information that is ‘important’ or ‘of interest’ to appendices or footnotes. And make sure your main message is at the forefront, not buried beneath layers of detail and supporting evidence.
• Keep paragraphs and sentences short. Long paragraphs and heavy blocks of text are a real turn-off. So are long, complex sentences that have to be read more than once to understand.
• Steer clear of long words and flowery phrases. Contrary to popular belief, these are not a sign of intellect or professionalism. Clients are far too busy to spend time deciphering them.
• Use active language wherever possible. Active verbs make your writing easier to read. So write, “X investigated the client’s role in the project”, rather than, “The role played by the client in the project was investigated by X”.
• Favour verbs over nouns. Use verbs such as ‘consider’ and ‘provide’ rather than structures such as ‘give consideration to’ and ‘the provision of’.
• Avoid poor grammar, punctuation and spelling – this will undermine your credibility and suggest you do not care.
Robert Ashton, chief executive, Emphasis