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Bar Association of San Francisco Member Benefits: Publications

Legal Writing Tips: Know Whereof You Write

By Leslie Gordon, BASF Bulletin Contributor


I’ve held onto few textbooks. But one I’ll never give up is Melvin Mencher’s News Reporting and Writing (now in its 12th edition; I used the 7th back in 1997 when I worked towards a masters in journalism). It’s loaded with indispensible tips that readily apply to legal writing.

Foremost, know whereof you write. “Understand the event first. Then write,” Mencher instructs. “Clever writing cannot conceal a paucity of facts, stale observations.” In law practice, a well-written brief is the result of solid research and clear thinking.

Great writing doesn’t call attention to itself. “Don’t write writing. Don’t make the purpose of your writing clever prose,” Mencher wrote. Good writing takes effort but the result should appear natural and unstrained to the reader. Strive for variety, rhythm and balance in word choice and sentence structure. Mencher reports that when Hemingway worked at the Kansas City Star, he was taught to favor short sentences and plainness of expression, to use few adjectives and to eliminate slang and stale phrases.

“[E]very sentence, every word, even every punctuation mark must be carefully selected. Readers…are maneuvered, teased, pushed, sped and slowed through the story by the way it is written,” Mencher says.
Espousing “show, don’t tell,” Mencher notes that excellent writing “engages readers by making them visualize, draw conclusions, experience insights.” He quoted Henry James: “An ounce of example is worth a ton of generalities.” In journalism and in legal writing, vivid quotes, human interest elements, relevant illustrations and anecdotes should appear up high in the text.

Be accurate in every sense, including word selection. Stick with concrete nouns and colorful action verbs. Words like progress, freedom, patriotism, big business “float off into space without being anchored to anything specific, concrete or identifiable,” Mencher says.
More Mencher tips to come…

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