Give your prose a sense of forward movement.

Each sentence should propel the reader into the next.

If you would like to receive new Elegant Legal Writing posts in your inbox, please subscribe:

Your prose should create a sense of forward movement in which one sentence propels the reader into the next. This concept is best illustrated by example.

A coalition of Uber drivers and other gig-economy workers recently challenged a California labor law requiring that these workers be treated as employees rather than independent contractors. Notice how each sentence in their complaint propels the reader into the next:

Californians are flocking to on-demand work. Instead of a daily commute, an outdated workplace hierarchy, and the daily grind of an inflexible 9-to-5 job, these workers enjoy the freedom to be their own bosses, set their own hours, and earn income whenever they want. Many such workers also choose to ‘multi-app’—i.e., simultaneously use the apps of several app-based network companies. By using multiple apps at the same time—e.g., Uber, Postmates, Grubhub, and DoorDash—independent service providers can more easily find service requests to perform.

How did the drafter write so clearly and create a sense of brisk forward movement?

  • Characters performing actions. The paragraph focuses not on abstract concepts, but on actors (“Californians,” “workers,” “independent service providers”) performing actions.

  • Transitions.Each sentence creates continuity through an implicit transition, then provides new information.

  • Varying sentence length and structure. The sentences are 6, 38, 18, and 26 words long (average: 22).

The lawyer also created coherence and paragraph unity by aligning the subjects of each sentence. Note that each subject refers to the same people while varying the language:

Californians are flocking to on-demand work. Instead of a daily commute, an outdated workplace hierarchy, and the daily grind of an inflexible 9-to-5 job, these workers enjoy the freedom to be their own bosses, set their own hours, and earn income whenever they want. Many such workers also choose to ‘multi-app’—i.e., simultaneously use the apps of several app-based network companies. By using multiple apps at the same time—e.g., Uber, Postmates, Grubhub, and DoorDash—independent service providers can more easily find service requests to perform.

Here’s another good example. Consider this opening paragraph from Google’s Supreme Court petitioner’s brief in the Google Books case. Google hopes to persuade the Court that Google Books does not infringe authors’ copyrights:

Google Books is a revolutionary search technology for books — a modern and marked improvement over the traditional card catalog. Google has scanned and indexed more than 20 million books by agreement with major research libraries. The Google Books tool allows any user to enter a search query, obtain a list of books containing the user’s search terms, and view limited “snippets” of surrounding words showing how the terms are used. Google Books does not allow users to read a book online, or even a single page of a book, without express permission from the rightsholder. But its search capabilities help users find books to buy or borrow, connecting them with the books they need, and thus bring to light a wealth of information previously hidden, undiscoverable, in books sitting on library shelves. Google Books thus offers enormous benefits to authors and readers and to the progress and diffusion of human knowledge.

What works about this paragraph?

  • Short but varying sentence lengths. The sentences range from 16–37 words; the ideal average is 20.

  • Well-placed emphasis. The brief manages emphasis by using an em-dash in the first sentence and by placing concrete nouns at the end of most sentences (“card catalog,” “libraries,” “rightsholder,” “library shelves,” “human knowledge”).

  • Subtle transitions. The paragraph uses only one explicit transition word: the short sentence-starter “But”in sentence five. The other sentences use the transition technique known as an echo link (repeating a word or phrase from the previous sentence).

  • Varied verbs. (“scan,” “index,” “allow,” “enter,” ”obtain,” “view,” “read,” “help,” “buy,” “borrow,” “bring to light,” “offer”)

  • Paragraph unity through a consistent theme of innovation. The paragraph contrasts Google Books with card catalogs and books “sitting on library shelves,” and it uses words that connote innovation and progress (“revolutionary,” “improvement,” ”progress,” “human knowledge”).

Most legal writing should be as readable as a popular nonfiction book or an article in the New Yorker. These examples show how you can work toward that goal.


Subscribe for free to receive new Elegant Legal Writing posts in your inbox:

Please consider sharing this post with your networks:

Share

Ryan McCarl (LinkedIn | Twitter | Blog) teaches Advanced Legal Writing at the UCLA School of Law and is a partner at the law firm Rushing McCarl.