Legal Writing Tip: Keep Your Writing Fresh; Ditch Lazy Words

Leslie A. Gordon

We all have words and phrases we use repeatedly. Sometimes, they’re good – specifically and as a result are two of my regulars. But others are crutch phrases or lazy words that dilute the power of writing. While you might not notice how frequently you use certain words, your reader will.

Eliminating words you tend to overuse will keep your writing fresh. See if your computer’s software has a tool that counts word iterations or ask a colleague to help you determine those words and then create your own personal “ditch list” that you consult during the editing process.

Below are some words that commonly appear in gunky first drafts. Many of these words are too colloquial, too casual or not crisp enough for what’s required in legal documents. Others are simply weak or downright unnecessary.

Really/Very/Quite
None of these words provide the emphasis that you expect. For intensity, find a more specific word. For example, instead of writing “very hot,” use “scalding,” “scorching” or “steaming.”

Just
In a sentence like, “She just doesn’t seem to care,” just is weak and adds no value.

Literally
Only use this if it’s to clarify the meaning – that is, to explain that you’re not joking when it might seem that you are.

Stuff, Things
I know you can be more precise.

A lot/Lots of
How much is a lot? Be specific – “as many as nine,” “30 stores.”

Kind of, Sort of
Say what you mean.

Basically/Essentially/Totally/Actually
These are useless modifiers that clunk up documents.

Amazing
Watch one episode of The Bachelor and you’ll see how quickly this word loses its power. The same goes for interesting.

Ditching these words and phrases will almost never change the meaning of your document. Finding substitutes for these and your personal lazy words will sharpen your message.

About the author:

gordonA former lawyer, Leslie A. Gordon is a freelance journalist living in San Francisco. She is the author of Cheer: A Novel, which is available on Amazon. She can be reached via email at leslie.gordon@stanfordalumni.org. Follow Leslie on Twitter: @LAGordonWriter.