Legal Writing Tip: Keep Deleting the Unnecessary

By Savannah Blackwell, BASF Bulletin Contributor

Eliminating verbiage is so essential to writing effectively, the task warrants further attention.

Legal writing guru Bryan Garner is fond of quoting the late Judge David Bazelon of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit on the importance of “super-tight prose.” Once, when a student law clerk presented the judge with a draft opinion, he famously retorted, “Nice draft. Now go back and read it again. Take out every paragraph you don’t need, then every sentence you don’t need. Then go back and take out every word you don’t need. Then, when you’re done with that, go back and start the whole process all over again.”

Trouble is, editing for brevity takes time. Since at least the days of Cicero, great orators and writers have noted it takes longer to write shorter. The line, “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter,” has been attributed to a number of historical figures. And many have said something to that effect. For example, asked once how long it took him to write a speech, Woodrow Wilson responded, “That depends on the length of the speech. If it is a ten-minute speech it takes me all of two weeks to prepare it; if it is a half-hour speech it takes me a week; if I can talk as long as I want to it requires no preparation at all. I am ready now.”
Set aside time to have a friend or colleague read your work with an eye on deleting the unnecessary. It’s much easier to spot word clutter in a composition other than your own.

And keep hunting for word-wasting idioms to trim.

With that in mind, let us look again to Richard Wydick in Plain English for Lawyers. He identifies the words ‘case’, ‘instance’, and ‘situation’ as typical producers of verbosity and offers the a list of examples and suggested replacements (see box).

Verbose - Concise Checklist

Next month, we will work on reducing the length of sentences. In the meantime, in the words of Mark Twain, don’t be “so apt to get to slinging wisdom and forget letting up,” lest “much precious time is wasted.”

About the Author
Savannah Blackwell is a former news reporter who covered government and politics for more than a decade, mostly in San Francisco. She became a licensed California attorney in 2010 and specializes in legal research and writing. She can be reached at Follow Savannah on Twitter @SavannahBinSF