Joe Fore

4 Tips to More Concise Legal Writing

Professor Joe Fore is co-director of UVA Law’s Legal Research and Writing Program.

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veryone wants concise writing — writing that conveys information in the shortest, simplest way possible. But while most of us know concise writing when we see it (or, just as often, when we don’t see it), it can be hard to achieve it in our own work. Here are four steps that will have you writing more efficiently.

Tip 1: Break up long sentences

Shortening sentences is the fastest way to make your writing more concise. Because legal writing often involves complex concepts, it can be tempting to mirror that complexity in longwinded sentences that cram multiple ideas together. Fight that temptation.

Instead, break long sentences into shorter ones that each make a distinct point. Then, connect those shorter sentences with transition words to show the relationships between your ideas. For example, here Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg summarizes the life cycle of a criminal case in four crisp sentences linked with clear transitions (highlighted):

Criminal proceedings generally unfold in three discrete phases. First, the State investigates to determine whether to arrest and charge a suspect. Once charged, the suspect stands accused but is presumed innocent until conviction upon trial or guilty plea. After conviction, the court imposes sentence.

Justice Ginsburg’s longest sentence contains 17 words; her shortest just six. Now, not every sentence can be as succinct as her last line. Nor would you want it to be. Your writing should contain a variety of sentences—some a bit shorter, some a bit longer. But, overall, strive for an average sentence length of around 20 words.

Tip 2: Start sentences with conjunctions

One of the easiest ways to shorten sentences while preserving flow between them is to start more sentences with But and And. Forget what you may have learned in school; starting sentences with conjunctions is not only grammatically correct, it’s good practice. Great writers do it all the time. Take the Supreme Court’s 2018 decision in Sessions v. Dimaya. Justice Elena Kagan started nearly 50 sentences with But or And in her 25-page majority opinion, while Justice Neil Gorsuch did it more than two dozen times in his 18-page concurrence.

Tip 3: Use shorter words and phrases

Short and simple language is a hallmark of clear, concise writing. So look for places to purge longer and more complex words from your newly shortened sentences. But it’s not just about excising esoteric terms and legalese—concomitantly, heretofore, arguendo. That’s a given; that’s the easy stuff. What’s harder is cutting common expressions that are longer than they need to be. Anywhere you can save is a plus: fewer letters, fewer words, fewer syllables. Here are some common legal writing phrases and their shorter, simpler substitutes:

Longer word/phrase

Concise replacement

prior to

Before

subsequent to, following

After

as a result of

Because

Notwithstanding

Despite

in order to

To

Utilize

Use

in the present/instant case

Here

at the present time

Now

Demonstrates

Shows

Numerous

Many

Approximately

About

For extra impact, combine this tip with the previous one and swap longer transitions for shorter conjunctions at the start of your sentences. And can replace Furthermore or Additionally at the start of a sentence, while But is a good stand-in for However. And if you tend to use Therefore, Accordingly or Consequently to show causation, try trading it for the peppier Thus or even So.

Tip 4: Nix nominalizations

Nominalizations are nouns formed from other parts of speech—words like explanation, settlement and viability. They present special problems for writers seeking concision. First, they’re typically longer than the verbs or adjectives they’re formed from (settlement vs. settle, viability vs. viable). They also require us to add extra words to make sentences grammatically correct. Take, for example, this sentence:

The majority opinion contains a discussion of legislative history.

At just nine words, the sentence isn’t long from an objective standpoint. Still, because it uses the noun discussion rather than the verb discuss, it’s longer than it needs to be. Not only is discussion a bigger word, using it also forces us to add an article (a), a preposition (of) and a verb (contains). Changing discussion back into a verb lets us streamline the sentence—and make it more active, to boot:

The majority opinion discusses legislative history.

Once you’re aware of nominalizations, you’ll see them (and cut them) everywhere—from pleadings and contracts to emails and text messages. No longer will you enter into an agreement or make a decision; you’ll simply agree or decide.  

Media Contact

Mary M. Wood
Chief Communications Officer
wood@law.virginia.edu / (434) 924-3786

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