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Bar Association of San Francisco Member Benefits: Publications

Legal Writing Tip: Keep the Reader in Mind

 

By Leslie A. Gordon, BASF Bulletin Contributor

 

After recently crossing paths with some dreadful legal writing samples, I wanted to review the principle of keeping your reader in mind as you write or, rather, keeping the reader in mind as you revise.
It’s perfectly acceptable to figure out what you want to say as you go, provided you’re on the first draft. A first pass may include lengthy histories or inessential analysis because sometimes we need to spit it all out before we organize thoughts and figure out our point. In that way, first drafts serve the writer’s purpose. But in revision, anything that does not serve the reader’s purpose should be ruthlessly tossed.

My all-time favorite writing quote is from Justice Brandeis, who said, “There’s no such thing as good writing, only good rewriting.” Nothing, not even the hard-fought but irrelevant gems from tedious research, should be sacred. Ask yourself, “Who is my reader?” It is patronizing, for example, to explain what doesn’t need explanation. Also ask, “What is my purpose?” Are you writing to inform? To persuade? An important corollary: “What is my audience’s purpose?” Will your reader cut and paste parts into an opinion? Take action? Responses to these questions will dictate what to ditch.

Other tips: avoid throat-clearing, i.e., the sentences that begin “It should be noted that” or “It is important to remember that.” Don’t bury critical points. Find other ways to add emphasis for the reader.
Speak your draft out loud. You’ll feel goofy at first but step into any world-class newsroom and you’ll spot reporters whispering to themselves.

Learn to dissect your own writing. If you were reading it for the first time, would you understand everything on the first pass? Putting yourself in the reader’s shoes is easier if you can let the copy rest, even for a few hours.


 

A former lawyer, Leslie A. Gordon is a freelance journalist living in San Francisco.

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