Tip 10 - Be a rebel and break the rules when necessary.
After ten weeks of laying down legal writing laws, I'm now here to tell you, 'Break them'! I don't say it out of a sadistic desire to confuse you. I say it because there are times in legal writing, much like in life, when the best course is not to follow the usual path but to follow your instinct and do what you feel is best. Be a rebel. But be an educated rebel. Learn the legal writing rules and understand them. Read good writing and see how skilled authors phrase their ideas. This way you hone that instinct and trust it when it calls.
Beyond instinct, there are prescribed situations in legal writing where it is best not to follow the general rules. To illustrate this, I'll take each tip I've presented in my Top Ten List and give examples of such situations.
Tip 1. Place important ideas at the beginning of your document, paragraph, and Top 10 List.
While Tip 1 is quite important and generally should be followed, there are circumstances where your most important ideas are not the very first presented. If you are writing an academic article, for example, perhaps you would prefer to start with an anecdote about the general topic or even offer a metaphor instead of going straight into your thesis.
Also, in responding to emails, you may want to structure your replies according to the way the person who sent the email presented the issues or questions, instead of arranging your response according to importance. This will make it easier for that person to follow.
Tip 2. Omit needless words.
In Tip 1, I wrote how William Strunk, who wrote The Elements of Style, would shout out to his class, 'Omit needless words'! In my own legal writing classes, I too pass along Strunk's words but with a caveat: clarity before brevity. While concise language often aids in legal writing, sometimes it is necessary to ensure that our readers will not misread our text. To do so, we may have to add extra words or sentences for clarification. We may have to make connections obvious between ideas, and in doing so, that means adding to, not deleting from, our work. However, do keep in mind the word 'needless' in this Tip and as Strunk says, make every word count.
Tip 3. Keep the subject, the verb, and the object of a sentence together.
The reason for keeping the subject, the verb, and the object together in your writing is to follow the grammatical pattern of how native English speakers actually speak. However, just as in conversation, that pattern can be interrupted by ideas to help highlight or clarify a sentence. Thus, breaking this pattern is permitted, but do so sparingly.
Tip 4. Use the active voice, which speaks louder than the passive voice.
Indeed, the active voice does speak louder than the passive, but there are times when we wish to speak softly. For example, if writing about a client who broke the law, perhaps it would be best not to highlight the actor with the active voice but shift to the passive and either leave the actor out or shift focus to the object of the action. It's also best to use the passive if the actor is just not as important in the sentence, malfeasance or not.
Tip 5. Introduce each paragraph with a topic sentence.
Topic sentences are very important in structuring your writing. However, you may break the rule to allow for a transitional sentence that moves the readers along from your previous idea to the next. This also brings me to the next rule.
Tip 6. Transition between paragraphs.
If the relationship between ideas is so clear that a transition is not necessary, feel free to leave it out.
Tip 7. Avoid ambiguous words and phrases.
This is a rule one should loathe to break but when situations do call for ambiguity, perhaps in an effort to evade a direct and damaging question, then do what you feel is necessary.
Tip 8. Avoid nominalizations (turning verbs into nouns).
Many of the same reasons for breaking the active over passive rule and even Tip 7 above apply to Tip 8. Nominalizations make your text heavy and more abstract, but abstraction may be what is best in certain instances. Nominalizations are also fine when it is not necessary to state or repeat who is doing the action; as in the case where the subject is already mentioned in the previous sentence. Nominalizations can also help rid your prose of the wordy phrase 'the fact that.'
Tip 9. Check your punctuation.
In Tip 9 I am going to be a rebel and break Tip 10 by saying 'Do NOT break this rule'.