Legal Writing Tip: Don’t Be Lame

When finishing up a piece of writing, whether it’s a document to be filed with the court or even a short e-mail to a client, consult a master editing checklist to ensure you don’t have any substantive or, worse, embarrassing errors. While I recommend devising a unique checklist based on your own personal writing weaknesses (we all have them), here’s a general checklist to get you started. It contains the errors I see most often.

Corral capitalization
I’m becoming exceedingly cranky about unnecessary capitalization (“this Weekend”). It’s everywhere, people.

Perfect punctuation
In particular, ensure you’re using commas correctly and effectively. Also, consider using less common but efficient punctuation marks such as semicolons and parenthesis.

Ditch stuffy words and legal jargon
Heretofore, therein, aforementioned. To use a technical term, bleechh. I promise the judge won’t miss them.

Delete “in order to,” “very” and “really”
If you’re relying on these kinds of useless words, your writing will be just plain weak.

Parallel your bullets, lists and other series
Wrong: Physical wellness depends on three factors: exercise, diet and getting sufficient sleep.
Right: Physical wellness depends on three factors: exercising, maintaining a healthy diet and getting sufficient sleep.

Hyphenate two-word modifiers for clarity
Is it a heavy-metal detector or a heavy metal detector?

Reduce redundancies
Did someone sit down or just sit? In the month of July or in July? Whether or not or whether?

Suss out the wrong words
Then/than, their/there, that/which. Someone just sent me the new “addition” of her newsletter. Grrr…

Vibrate verbs.
Search for “there are” sentences and improve them with active verbs.

Appropriate apostrophes.
It’s, its and “Katelyns ballet recital” errors are a downright epidemic on social media. Remember to consult the rules about using apostrophes with acronyms and years.

Don’t be lame
Quotation marks for emphasis (“‘On sale’ this Saturday”), spelling errors and failing to close parenthesis or quote marks – just…no.

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.