How to Improve Your Legal Writing with One Change
Published: May 14, 2018
As O’Melveny’s in-house editor—a role that involves everything from wordsmithing and flyspecking to training and mentoring—I’m often asked to name one thing attorneys can do to improve their written work. If it were that easy, I’d be out of a job. Like most self-help axioms, writing tips have a way of sounding good at the moment, only to prove maddeningly simplistic once you try putting them into practice. Which is to say, I tend to be skeptical of tidy formulas, secret sauces, and rules devised eons ago in little red schoolhouses.
But if forced to choose, I always return to the same tool, the part of speech that animates our language: verbs. Muscular verbs propel sentences forward. We can see the action, sometimes even hear it. Best of all, we have no doubt about the person or thing performing the action—active verbs require an actor. Babies prattle. Steaks sizzle. Writers kvetch. Most dull writing is disembodied, long on abstraction and short on doing.
When I urge colleagues to choose their verbs wisely, I’m not imposing restrictions. To the contrary, I prefer to think that I’m helping expand their literary choices—identifying opportunities for crisper, livelier sentences. A few ways it can be done:
Replace “to be” verbs. Think of them as the slackers of our language, all-purpose verbs that convey existence, not motion or vigor. Sometimes we need the functionality of “is” or “are.” But always challenge yourself to find a more active replacement.
There were papers all over my desk.
Papers blanketed my desk.
Unbury the action. Too often we nominalize our language, sapping verbs of life and repurposing them as nouns. You’ll especially see this with “-tion” words. They may have an air of authority, but they’re often concealing an action. Extract it.
The witness’s statement gives rise to the implication…
The witness’s statement implies…
With adverbs, tread lightly. Nothing signals flabby writing like a parade of adverbs, those “-ly” intensifiers that are to good prose what Auto-Tune is to hip-hop. A more vivid or precise verb can render them unnecessary.
After winning the case, she went quickly down the courthouse steps.
After winning the case, she sailed down the courthouse steps.
Next time you write a paper or article or cover letter, take a moment to circle the verbs. If you can find ways to make them more nutritious, you’ll end up with more flavorful writing.
Jesse Katz is a two-time Pulitzer Prize winning writer and the in-house editor at O'Melveny & Myers. This is a sponsored blog post from O'Melveny; you can view the firm's Vault profile here.