Monday, May 11, 2009

The Wordsmith Is In, Part One

Lawyers have a reputation for being poor writers. We are regarded as wordy, repetitive, wordy, given to overly complex sentences and wordy.

Some complexity in legal drafting cannot be avoided. After all, many contracts record complicated transactions.

But that does not mean lawyers should stop trying to draft contracts that are as clear and brief as possible

To that end we offer some suggestions from George Orwell. His essay, "Politics and the English Language," was first published in May, 1945.

A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus:

  1. What am I trying to say?

  2. What words will express it?

  3. What image or idiom will make it clearer?

  4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?

And he will probably ask himself two more:

  1. Could I put it more shortly?

  2. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?


I think the following rules will cover most cases:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

  2. Never us a long word where a short one will do.

  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.

  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

These rules sound elementary, and so they are, but they demand a deep change of attitude in anyone who has grown used to writing in the style now fashionable.

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