Anyone who’s taken a 1L legal-writing class has heard the Golden Rule of Legal Writing: “Write short sentences.” But rarely is that rule explained. Why should I write short sentences? And what is a short sentence, anyway?
In fact, the rule needs some refinement. The important thing isn’t to write short sentences, per se; it’s to keep the average length of your sentences in control. And the reason to do that is simple: readers understand short sentences more easily, and so can follow your argument better. The rule should, therefore, be stated this way: “Write short sentences on average.”
Of course, that still needs some explaining. What do we mean by “short”? Well, it depends on whom you ask, and when. Sentence length has been declining for four hundred years. In the 1600s, the average published sentence came in at around 60 words. A hundred years later, that average had dropped by nearly a third, and it kept falling. By the twentieth century, averages had dropped to around 25 words. And today, most publications average well less. Publications like The New Yorker and The Atlantic still average around 20 words per sentence, but the average general-interest newspaper has fallen to somewhere around 15.
These publications are a good barometer for what modern readers like. After all, newspapers and magazines survive only if readers are willing to pay for the pleasure of reading them. So for you, the brief writer, they offer a useful rule of thumb: try to keep your average between 15 and 20 words per sentence.
Now, some of you are objecting already:
- “Legal writing deals with complicated subjects, and complicated subjects need long sentences.”
- “Good writers routinely use long sentences.”
- “I don’t care what readers like—my job isn’t to please; it’s to persuade.”
Let’s take these objections one at a time, starting with “legal writing deals with complicated subjects.” Surely, we can stipulate that no matter what kind of law you practice, it’s not more complicated than astrophysics. And even astrophysics can be explained in snappy sentences. For example, in his compulsively readable Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking averages fewer than 18 words per sentence. If Dr. Hawking doesn’t need overlong sentences to describe the nature of the universe, you don’t need them to describe a breach of contract.
As for “good writers routinely use long sentences,” that’s true. But remember, we’re not talking about individual sentences. No one (competent) would recommend that you cripple your prose by arbitrarily capping your sentences. Instead, you should focus on your average sentence length. Even authors who are known for their long sentences kept reasonable averages—Charles Dickens of all people averaged around 20. So yes, good writers do often write long sentences, and so should you. The important thing is to spread them out among shorter sentences. In fact, studies have shown that no single factor increases readability more than variety in sentence length. Variety, after all, is the spice of life.
Finally, let’s consider “it’s not my job to please the reader.” That, of course, is also true, if horribly shortsighted. Yes, judges are civil servants, and they’re paid to read whatever you put in front of them. But that doesn’t give you free license to file whatever dreck you please. You still have a job to do, and that job is to persuade the judge to rule in your client’s favor. And do you think the judge will be more likely to accept an argument from a brief she had to force herself through, or one she enjoyed reading?
In other words, readable briefs are effective briefs, and shorter sentences increase readability. But that’s not their only benefit. Studies have shown that readers retain information better when it’s “chunked”—i.e., broken into smaller, related pieces. And that’s precisely what shorter sentences help you do: they help you chunk your information into bite-sized nuggets your reader can easily digest and retain. That will come in handy when your judge is ready to write her opinion. The more of your argument she remembers, the more likely she is to rely on your brief.
So how do you shorten your average sentence? The easiest way is to use fewer words. Now, that’s sometimes easier said than done, but you can at least go after the low-hanging fruit. First cut your “filler” phrases—dead weight like “it should be noted,” “it need not be stated,” and “the fact that.” These phrases almost never add any meaning, and your sentences will be leaner without them. You can also target prepositional phrases, particularly “of” phrases, which you can replace with an adjective or possessive noun. For example, you could replace “the conclusions of the Board” with “the Board’s conclusions.” You only save a few words each time, but over the course of a 50-page brief, the savings add up.
You could also target your semicolons and turn them all to periods. Yes, some writers use semicolons to great effect. I’ve even used a few in this article (perhaps to lesser effect). But if you need a quick way to bring down your average, just take a few out—or better, use fewer to begin with.
Whatever technique you choose, always write with the (revised) Golden Rule in mind: keep your sentences short on average. Follow the rule, and your prose will perk up, your readers will follow your argument better, and you may find yourself winning more cases.
About the Author
Alexander MacDonald is a 2012 graduate of the William & Mary School of Law. He is an associate with Littler Mendelson, P.C., and the editor in chief of the Practice Tips Series. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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