Read these short articles to learn easy ways to improve your prose.

Eschew Prolixity

Cut "It" Out

Embrace the 3-Letter Word

Don't Be So Negative

Compare Apples to Apples

Is That a Fact?

Legal writing tends to be verbose and pompous, and that’s not a compliment. Streamline your writing by cutting unnecessary words and phrases, and preferring plain words to fancy ones.

Here are 10 common offenders:

Cut Use Instead
in order to to
prior to before
due to the fact that because
whether or not whether
it is important to note that omit
pursuant to under
with regard to about, regarding
was in violation of violated
commence start, begin
utilize use

Instantly transform your prose by cutting these “it” constructions.

It is likely that

It can be inferred that

It is possible that

It is important to note that

It is axiomatic that

It has been determined that

It should be noted that

It is clear that

These throat-clearing phrases clutter your writing and distract the reader from your message. While you’re at it, cut “there is” and “there are” as well.

Examples From Scott Peterson’s Motion for Change of Venue in People v. Peterson:

Yet despite its small population, it is important to note that Stanislaus County is well served by local press.

Yet despite its small population, Stanislaus County is well served by local press.

In addition to the countless print articles, there has also been extensive television coverage that has also improperly and prematurely convicted Mr. Peterson of the alleged crimes.

In addition to the countless print articles, extensive television coverage has improperly and prematurely convicted Mr. Peterson of the alleged crimes.

If you peruse any newspaper or magazine, you’ll find that journalists are not afraid to start sentences with “and,” “but,” or “yet.” And they shouldn’t be. These one-syllable replacements for sluggish transitions like “moreover,” “additionally,” “however,” and “nevertheless” will emphasize your point while propelling your reader through your prose.

Here are some examples from the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Morse v. Frederick, the “BONG HITS 4 JESUS” case. While these Justices could not agree on the result, each of them used 3-letter sentence starters.

Justice Roberts, writing for the majority:

“And even the dissent recognizes that the issues here are close enough that the principal should not be held liable in damages, but should instead enjoy qualified immunity for her actions.”

“But not even Frederick argues that the banner conveys any sort of political or religious message.”

Justice Thomas, concurring:

“And the idea of treating children as though it were still the 19th century would find little support today. But I see no constitutional imperative requiring public schools to allow all student speech.”

Justice Alito, concurring:

“But I do not read the opinion to mean that there are necessarily any grounds for such regulation that are not already recognized in the holdings of this Court.”

Justice Breyer, concurring in part, dissenting in part:

“And finding that Morse was entitled to qualified immunity would leave only the question of injunctive relief.”

“Yet no one wishes to substitute courts for school boards, or to turn the judge’s chambers into the principal’s office.”

“But this consideration is better understood in terms of qualified immunity than of the First Amendment.”

Justice Stevens, dissenting:

“And while conventional speech may be restricted only when likely to “incit[e] imminent lawless action,” Brandenburg, 395 U.S. at 449, it is possible that our rigid imminence requirement ought to be relaxed at schools.”

“But it is a gross non-sequitur to draw from these two unremarkable propositions the remarkable conclusion that the school may suppress student speech that was never meant to persuade anyone to do anything.”

Multiple negatives in a sentence usually require the reader to do a double-take. To make the reader’s job easier, replace double negatives with positive constructions.

Consider this sentence from the defendant’s reply brief in support of a motion for a bill of particulars in United States v. Dimson (the case alleging that a Coca-Cola employee and two others tried to sell trade secrets to PepsiCo):

“Mr. Dimson in no way concedes the point that impossibility is not a defense to these charges.”

This double negative is even more confusing because of the word “impossibility.” Without reading the sentence again, can you tell whether Mr. Dimson thinks that impossibility is a defense?

He does. But the following revision would have saved you a second glance:

"Mr. Dimson maintains that impossibility is a defense to these charges."

Clearer and four words shorter--now that’s positive.

Drawing analogies is an effective tool in analyzing and arguing the law. Showing how your case is like, or unlike, another case can bolster your prediction (in a memo) and support your argument (in a brief or motion). But law students and new lawyers often have trouble structuring effective analogies.

When analogizing, make sure to compare like to like (or distinguish like from like): a person to another person, a case to another case, a circumstance to another circumstance.


Typical Law Student:

Unlike Dale, the Solomon Amendment does not force an institution to take a position on an issue that is inconsistent with its beliefs.

Petitioner in Rumsfeld v. F.A.I.R.:

“Unlike the state law in Dale, the Solomon Amendment does not force an institution to take a position on an issue that is inconsistent with its beliefs.”

Typical Law Student:

Unlike Texas v. Johnson, the conduct regulated by the Solomon Amendment is not inherently expressive.

The Supreme Court in Rumsfeld v. F.A.I.R.:

“Unlike flag burning, the conduct regulated by the Solomon Amendment is not inherently expressive.”

You may have learned that your facts should “speak for themselves.” But what does that mean? After all, you’re the one who has to write them. Letting the facts speak for themselves means describing them in a way that compels the reader to draw the conclusions you seek. Strive to paint a mental image for your reader.

Compare these two sentences from a fact statement:

Defendant lacked mental capacity.

Defendant told police officers that he had just flown in from Mars.

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