Editing actual written Legal English: shorter sentences

Writers, editors, and writing teachers commonly recommend using “short words, short sentences, and S-V-O sentence structure” when you write in English. I’ve offered my own variation of that advice in several posts here at The Englished Advocate™, especially in my post on eloquent English in King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

Such advice might surprise you. If users of your mother tongue reserve an ornate writing style for formal occasions such as when you draft legal documents in English, then the advice probably surprises you even more. You have plenty of company, though, because the advice also surprises many English-mother-tongue attorneys: even mother-tongue attorneys doubt that their written Legal English can be both relatively formal and simple and straightforward at the same time.

Why lawyers’ sentences go on, and on, and . . .

We’re lawyers. We have working vocabularies (professional and otherwise) packed with long, abstract words. We’re used to balancing several ideas in long, grammatically complex sentences. We balance even more ideas in a single sentence when we quote language from positive laws such as statutes and incorporate that language into our sentences. Besides, our blood pressure often rises while we’re drafting arguments for clients in legal briefs: it’s easy to get carried away with the rightness of our own arguments and the fairness of our clients’ positions.

When that happens, our sentences start dictating their own length because we, the writing attorneys, no longer control our own words: they take on a life of their own. Like most other living things, such sentences resist death as long as they can. Soon the recommended average sentence length of 15-25 words is a fading memory as your sentences snake along to 50, 60, and even 70 or more words. Meanwhile, your readers nod off to sleep because your writing makes them work too hard just to find what should be a simple, straightforward meaning.

This post shows you how easy it is to avoid that fate.

How to write shorter sentences in Legal English

How do you write shorter sentences?

You use more periods or other “full-stop punctuation” such as the question mark in the preceding sentence and the colons used in the second, third, and fourth paragraphs of this post.

(Strictly speaking, the three colons do not end “sentences.” They do, though, end independent clauses. For our present purposes, that’s the same as ending sentences.)

The trick, of course, is knowing where to put the full-stop punctuation.

As a first step, remember that you want an average of 15-25 words per sentence in your written Legal English. You obviously can reach that average if every sentence you write is 15-25 words long. You’d do much better, though, to get that average by varying your sentence length: the variety itself is one more way to keep your reader’s attention. An occasional 50-word sentence can be OK—if you balance it out with a few shorter, punchier sentences in the range of, for example, 10-15 words.

The trick to writing shorter sentences, then, begins with your awareness of at least these two principles:

  • Readers grasp ideas faster and more accurately in shorter sentences because fewer concepts interfere with readers’ access to the core ideas you’re trying to convey.
  • Variety in sentence length helps to hold readers’ attention because the variety makes the writing seem more natural (probably because the varying lengths of sentences resemble the pace of conversation and even, I’d guess, the varying pace of the breaths that accompany conversation).

Take those basic ideas to heart, and you need only to practice to improve this important aspect of your written Legal English.

You’ll probably feel awkward for a while. Do you see tasks as mechanical as counting words and doing arithmetic on your writing as interfering with your writing? You shouldn’t. Remember that we’re talking about the editing stage of the writing process. In this stage, you’re only shaping and polishing the product of the more creative, generative drafting stage (although, if you’re like me, you frequently draft new phrases and sentences even while you’re supposedly “just editing”). Soon you’ll internalize the awareness of sentence length and outgrow the awkwardness you might feel at first.

You should not see the task of editing to shorten sentences as interfering with your expression. If anything, you should see it as revealing your expression and helping your ideas to shine.

Editing for shorter sentences: putting the principles to use

A quick example illustrates how easy it is to edit written Legal English into shorter sentences.

The sample I’ll use appears early in the 22-page white paper released by the Obama Administration on 9 August 2013. That document states the U.S. government’s legal justification for the National Security Agency’s (NSA) program of collecting massive amounts of telephony metadata, in bulk, from several major American telephone service providers. In an update on my social-media account at Google+, I’ve already made it clear that I find the Obama Administration’s asserted legal analysis on the statutory issue to be embarrassingly weak.

Here, though, we’re concerned only with the legal writing through which the Administration expresses its legal analysis. Page 6 of the white paper contains this passage:

The Government’s application for an order must include “a statement of facts showing that there are reasonable grounds to believe that the tangible things sought are relevant to [such] [sic] an authorized investigation (other than a threat assessment)” and that the investigation is being conducted under guidelines approved by the Attorney General. Id. § 1861(b)(2)(A) and (a)(2)(A). Because Section 215 does not authorize the [Court] to issue an order for the collection of records in connection with FBI threat assessments, [footnote omitted] to obtain records under Section 215 the investigation must be “predicated” (e.g., based on facts or circumstances indicative of terrorism, consistent with FBI guidelines approved by the Attorney General).

This passage gives an overview of what the government must do to receive a court order permitting the NSA to collect telephony metadata in bulk.

But what you should notice now is that this passage contains 103 words (omitting the legal citations) and only two sentences. The average sentence length in this short passage is thus 51.5 words. Admittedly, the passage is only a small portion of only one paragraph of a much larger document. Still, the attorneys who wrote this passage—attorneys for whom English presumably is the mother tongue—make their readers work far too hard just to get the attorneys’ meaning.

We immediately clarify the writing in this passage just by dividing each of the original two sentences into two shorter sentences:

The Government’s application for an order must include “a statement of facts showing that there are reasonable grounds to believe that the tangible things sought are relevant to [such] [sic] an authorized investigation (other than a threat assessment).” Id. § 1861(b)(2)(A). That application also must show that the investigation complies with guidelines approved by the Attorney General. Id. § 1861(a)(2)(A). Section 215 does not authorize the [Court] to issue an order for the collection of records in connection with FBI threat assessments. [footnote omitted] Therefore, to obtain records under Section 215, the investigation must be “predicated,” which means based on facts or circumstances suggesting terrorism, consistent with FBI guidelines approved by the Attorney General.

I had to add two words to help the transition to what is now the second sentence in the passage. Even so, the 105 words in this edited version of the passage have an average sentence length of a much more readable 26.25 words—simply because the passage now has four sentences instead of two.

Improved editing skills = improved writing skills

My extremely light, easy edits here do not change the meaning in the passage by one iota. The attorneys’ meaning is also appreciably easier to grasp because the reader can digest the material in smaller chunks.

These simple edits to shorten sentences, then, improve the writing well beyond the minimal effort required to make the changes.

Do you have trouble noticing the need for such edits when you read English? If so, then you can improve your own ability to read English soon enough. Developing an eye for such an important aspect of expository prose in English is largely, maybe even entirely, only a matter of practice.

With my background, I noticed the glaring need to shorten sentences in the Obama Administration’s white paper while I was reading the document the first time. But remember that I’ve been a serious reader of English and a serious student of writing and usage in English for more than thirty years. I’ve also read much English—as a teacher, as an editor, as a writer who reads his own writing in draft—specifically to improve the English I’m reading.

Focus on sentence length in the English you read for the next—week? month? 2-3 months? Do it long enough to make that part of the editor’s eye part of your own normal reading process.

What you’ll find is that that part of the editor’s eye soon becomes part of your writing process. Once you develop the habit from looking at English written by other writers, your editing for sentence length in your own written English, of your own written Legal English, will improve. When it does, you will have separated your written Legal English from that of ESL attorneys who have not developed this aspect of a truly conscious command of written English.

Your clients should appreciate the difference.

#legalenglish #englishforlaw #eslattorneys #esllawyers

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