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Bar Association of San Francisco Member Benefits: Publications

Legal Writing Tips: Write Your Briefs with Sense of Style and Drama


By Leslie A. Gordon, BASF Bulletin Contributor

We continue this month with more from Melvin Mencher’s News Reporting and Writing, my journalism textbook that, in my opinion, should be required reading for lawyers too.

In Chapter 7, the “Writer’s Art” (in my copy, the 7th edition), Mencher notes that,“The good reporter is firmly rooted in the language of ordinary people, which, because it is comprehensible, has the ring of conviction.” The same goes for attorneys writing briefs, memos and emails.

He goes on to quote Daniel Defoe, who said that a perfect style of language is “that in which a man speaking to five hundred people, of all common and various capacities . . . should be understood by them all, and in the same sense which the speaker intended to be understood.”

Every news event — like every case or transaction — has its own “tone, texture and pace” that should be reflected in the way stories—or briefs and business communications—are drafted. “The way a story is written is known as its style,” Mencher explains. He refers to a news story about a poisoning in which the first five sentences average 11 words and then the next three average 21, providing “an air of calm after the frenzy of the incident.” Do you want law clerks to eagerly read your briefs? Write them with this same sense of style and drama.

Information should be presented succinctly, Mencher adds, but the narrative should also be suggestive (“connotative”) in language that readers understand. “The key to stylistic excellence is a wide vocabulary and a sensitivity to language that guides word choice.” By example, he quotes Shakespeare’s expert use of action verbs (“The grass stoops not, she treads on it so light.”) and recommends studying advertisements for their “tight, colorful writing” — a practice I intend to adopt too.

Finally, as frequently espoused in this column, Mencher says, “[W]riting is rewriting, leaving out more than putting in, always trying to simplify and clarify.”


Email with questions or comments.

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

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