Oftentimes we go about our business assuming that we know everything necessary to write and explain our arguments. The thought never crosses our minds that perhaps we still have a few things to learn, or at least a few tricks to remember. Today, we hosted a Wordsmith Workshop on grammar and ESL here at the Law Library. The presentation slides can be found here: Grammar & ESL Presentation. During this workshop, we discussed numerous aspects of the English language, especially as they pertain to legal writing. While many of us simply brush off these finer points of grammar as something we already learned in elementary school, it is surprisingly easy to forget those basic tools we learned so long ago. For example, many students and lawyers writing today fail to utilize transition words or phrases, which assist the reader in connecting thoughts and arguments throughout the document. Furthermore, authors often forget to whom they are writing and focus solely on making their argument rather than presenting the argument in such a way as to best aid and impress their target audience. For example, when writing a legal brief or memo, the author should focus on clarity and conciseness, thereby expressing the argument and supporting law as clearly and briefly as possible. By utilizing concise writing, an author can better hold the reader's attention as well as present the contents of the argument in an easy to follow and succinct manner.
Additional points of grammar to remember involve such basic concepts as avoiding double negatives and contractions, utilizing subject-verb agreement, ensuring your writing is active rather than passive, and remembering to check commonly misspelled or misused words such as their and there or it's and its. While these points may seem like common sense to many authors, the amount of common mistakes authors make may surprise you. As our presenter pointed out today, an author should spend 2/3 of their overall time spent on any single document editing and proofreading it rather than merely writing it. This means that the amount of time spent writing a brief or an article should triple for the editing and proofreading time. Oftentimes authors fail to check for common mistakes or errors that their spell-check will not catch, and these errors slip through the cracks and into the finished product. While these errors may not seem vastly important, a superfluous amount of them can detract from the overall credibility of the author and, therefore, their writing. While editing, keep a weather eye out for these often overlooked mistakes. Reading your work aloud is a great way to catch errors.
Ultimately, your main focus in legal writing is content and ensuring that your argument is persuasive and beneficial to your client. You can achieve this goal more easily, however, by utilizing correct grammar and transitional language to help your reader as much as possible.