Legal Writing Tip: Boost the Drama; Keep Sentences Short

Leslie A. Gordon

To boost drama or emotion in briefs, client letters and other writing, pepper your narrative with short sentences. Easy to read, short sentences focus readers’ attention, helping them retain information. Part style, part literary technique, short sentences control your reader’s pace and add an artistic twist to otherwise bland documents.

Known for minimalism, Ernest Hemingway used short sentences brilliantly. He was once challenged to tell a complete story in six words. His submission? “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” In Macbeth, William Shakespeare similarly demonstrated the power of the short sentences with: “The Queen, my lord, is dead.”

In legal writing, short sentences can emphasize ideas. Therefore, reserve them for your most significant points. Short sentences are most powerful when nestled among longer ones – often at the end of a long paragraph – or when they stand alone as their own paragraphs.

So how short is short? That depends on the length of nearby sentences, most of which are around 25 words.

Importantly, too many short sentences in a row can chop up the narrative and resemble a Twitter feed. So find a balance – use short sentences to deliberately slow the reader down. As with other style choices, employment of short sentences should be dictated by who you’re writing for and the purpose of your document.

When editing, scan your document for sentences that extend beyond two lines or contain multiple ideas joined by commas or and, but and which clauses. Consider whether you can break those sentences into shorter ones for dramatic purpose. Longer sentences should be used for fleshing out ideas. Another way to shrink sentences for effect is to eliminate extraneous words. As Dr. Seuss once declared, “The writer who breeds more words than he needs is making a chore for the reader who reads.”

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.