The Aesthetics of Brief Writing

aesthetics-1Conversations around aesthetics are generally found in the context of the arts. As visual aesthetics are highly important in the context of interactive work (be it music, sculpture, paintings, and the like), it seems only natural to have those conversations. However, when we think of a legal brief, it is rare to ever hear mention of aesthetics. This is because we often are more concerned about the content of the brief rather than the physical appearance—this is a critical flaw. We should concern ourselves with the aesthetics of our brief just as much as we are concerned about the content. We are all aware that judges are busy. Let’s make their job easier: make them want to read your brief.

A brief, much like music, sculpture, paintings and the like, is interactive. A brief is argument that an attorney prepares specifically for the court to interact with. The court’s first impression of the attorney will be how the brief looks. Regardless of what I have been told, I always judge a book by its cover. The judge can and will judge your brief based on how it looks, too. There are simple steps to ensure your brief is the belle of the ball:

1 . Although obvious, do not screw up the basic formatting. Don’t miss the easy ones. Call the clerk and ask what the local rules are if you are not aware of requirements and cannot find the formatting requirements on your own.

2. Leave white space. Why do we need white space? It gives the eyes a break. There is nothing more daunting than flipping the page to see nothing but a wall of text. Your reader will thank you for the white space. In addition, white space can improve the legibility of the document, increase the attention of the reader, and lead to higher overall comprehension of the point you are asserting. A writer can create whitespace by:

  • breaking up a paragraph into multiple paragraphs
  • using point headings
  • using bullet points
  • inserting charts
  • inserting graphics

Don’t shy away from being creative with your document, but also strike a balance. What is right for one piece of writing may not be right for another—a case-by-case analysis, if you will.

3. Pay attention to orphans and widows. In typesetting, orphans and widows are lines at the beginning or end of a paragraph, which are left dangling at the top or bottom of a column or page, separated from the rest of the paragraph. Orphans and widows interrupt the flow of a paragraph due to the page flip—this could cause the read to lose the writers train of thought and the point the writer is trying to get across. Do your best to eliminate orphans and widows from your brief as brief will appear more neat, and the flow of a paragraph will not be interrupted.

4. Align the text of your document to the left. Research shows when type is left-aligned it is generally easier to read. Karen Schriver’s book Dynamics in Document Design, indicates that regular word spacing makes for faster reading and more accurate comprehension. When text is justified it creates a visual illusion of white space running through the text (known as rivers)—this is not the kind of white space you want. By left-aligning text you avoid rivers of white space running through the text.

5. Pick the right font. Picking the right font will increase your document’s readability. Great content is irrelevant if it is a pain to read. There has been a battle of serif fonts vs. san-serif fonts (that is, fonts with the flourish on the edges of the letters vs fonts without). There have been numerous studies regarding the readability of the fonts. So which is better? According to a New York Times study: serif fonts. Serif fonts were subjectively considered easier to read and more trusted. A few good ones:

  • Times New Roman
  • Book Antiqua
  • Century
  • Century Schoolbook
  • New Baskerville
  • Bookman Old Style

These five tips will help you set your brief apart from the numerous other briefs that are filed. If executed properly, these tips will also increase the readability of your brief, causing the reader to want to read it in its entirety. This will work to your advantage not only for a single case, but for your career as a whole.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Melissa Greipp


    Thank you for this fabulous post. I’m generally a dedicated Century Schoolbook person, but at the recommendation of someone I admire, I’ve been using Book Antiqua more often lately.

    I agree with you that left-aligned type is preferable. However, I know several document-design “nerds” who swear by justified text. How might one convert them? Does justified text always create rivers?

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