Cut It Out

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Category: Legal Practice, Legal Writing, Public
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EditingKnow how and when to cut words from your sentences during the editing process?  Here are some links to help.

Bryan Garner’s April 2014 ABA Journal magazine article provides a good list of unnecessary phrases.  Garner recommends “axing” words like “herein” from legal documents.

WordRake is an editing program that allows you to upload a document and receive line edits on concision and clarity.  This blog tested the program on some sample Supreme Court authority with favorable results.  Also check out the WordRake blog for editing advice.

One easy starting point for editing is to look for and eliminate “there is” and “it is” from your sentences.  These phrases add meaningless fluff at the most important point of a sentence—the beginning—and often signal the passive voice and nominalizations.  This blog suggests ways to streamline your writing by eliminating “there is” and “it is” (or the past tense version) or phrases like “given the fact that” or “in light of the fact that.”

Another starting point for your edits is to review the verb in your sentence.  Aim for strong verbs—those verbs that describe an action.  Using strong verbs helps you to reduce adverb usage.  This blog explains the benefits of strong verbs, among other tips, and offers strategies for the global editing process.  Aim to put the subject and verb at the beginning of the sentence.  Doing so will make your sentences more direct and active and reduce clutter.

This Economist blog explains the problem of front loading a sentence when you are handling complicated legal concepts.  The blog focuses on a key problem in legal writing:  that the concepts you’re writing about are so complex that you need to write simply, directly, and plainly to aid reader comprehension.  Adding complexity to your writing—legalese—exponentially increases the chances the parties (or the judge) may miss your point.  Eliminate strings of prepositional phrases like “of the” or “by the.”  Replace the prepositional phrase with an apostrophe.

The Purdue University OWL (Online Writing Lab) has exercises with answer keys on eliminating wordiness.  The OWL is a comprehensive online writing resource.

Want to gain a historical perspective on why legal writing has traditionally been so wordy and convoluted?  This blog offers the conventional theory that wordiness resulted from the Norman conquest of England, when lawyers apparently felt the need to use both English and French words in legal documents.

The ability to edit efficiently and effectively is a skill all lawyers need, whether you’re a litigator or a transactional attorney.  Keep a checklist of words and phrases, tips and techniques, and resources.  Use your word processor’s ‘find’ feature to look for wordy phrases like “there is.”  Read sentences that are more than three lines long out loud to yourself to hear where you can divide up the sentence.  You can skim the beginning of each sentence to see if the subject and verb begin the sentence; if not, then consider editing the sentence.  With a bit of practice, these editing techniques can become second nature.

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One Response to “Cut It Out”

  1. Melissa Greipp Says:

    Here’s a good list of wordy phrases, along with better substitutes. This list shows how wordy phrases often relate to nominalizations, and the substitute is strong verb (direct and descriptive).

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