You know the old joke about having to write a long letter because you didn’t have time to write a short one? That’s the essence of good writing and editing. Shorter is almost always better, so long as meaning remains clear. Following are simple tips to tighten your writing, based on some of the most common faults I see involving the use of too many words.
There are extraneous words cluttering this sentence.
Beware of sentences that begin with “there is” or “there are.” Although that phrase is sometimes the only way to open a particular sentence, it is often the sign of lazy construction. For example, in the heading above, why did I need “There are”? I didn’t. “Extraneous words clutter this sentence” gets the same idea across while saving two words.
What about now?
You are currently reading this sentence. I mean, you’re doing it right at this point in time. Did I need to tell you that? No, because present tense alone is usually enough to signal that something is happening now. If I had simply written, “You are reading this sentence,” you would have gotten all the meaning I needed to convey. But if you still feel the need to make the present time element more obvious in a sentence, just say “now,” which is a clearly understood word and shorter than clunky, officious alternatives like “currently” and “presently” (the latter of which also is ambiguous, if you want to get picky, because it can also mean “soon”).
We lawyers seem pathologically drawn to the phrase “prior to,” as if the old-fashioned “before” that normal people use isn’t official enough. I believe it’s safe to say that you won’t be disbarred if you replace “The officer knocked three times prior to opening the door” with “The officer knocked three times before opening the door.”
Accentuate the negative.
Take a look at these sentences:
That behavior was not mature.
It is not possible for me to condone it.
I cannot believe you could not find an alternative way to express yourself.
Nothing is technically wrong with them, but the first two fail to take advantage of the negative versions of words already in the sentences, while the third ignores a shorter alternative method for stating a negative. Here’s how you can save three words and sharpen their rhythm without losing meaning:
That behavior was immature.
It is impossible for me to condone it.
I cannot believe you could find no alternative way to express yourself.
You don’t need that.
One of the most overused words in all kinds of writing is “that.” We tend to use it simply as a spacer. For example:
“The defendant didn’t realize that he had left his wallet behind.”
What is the purpose of “that” in the sentence? The statement would neither lose meaning nor become confusing if “that” were deleted.
Admittedly, “that” is sometimes necessary to help avoid confusion. For example, I would leave the “that” in this sentence:
I submit that the witness statement is inadmissible hearsay.
Why? Because when I begin reading the sentence without the “that” (“I submit the witness statement…”), I momentarily assume the author is merely telling me he or she has submitted a witness statement. Only after I read further do I realize the author is using “submit” to introduce an argument. It’s a subtle difference, but one that justifies “that.”
What’s your grammatical pet peeve in legal writing? Tell us in the comments!