"Hurry slowly," writes Italo
Calvino in Six Memos for the Next Millennium. "A writer's work
has to take account of many rhythms: Vulcan's and Mercury's, a message
of urgency obtained by dint of patient and meticulous adjustments and
an intuition so instantaneous that, when formulated, it acquires the
finality of something that could never have been otherwise."
I love this quotation by Calvino because it opens up a world of
possibilities for writers, especially lawyers. It sanctions having fun
with writing: allowing yourself to use flourishes where necessary, to
be straightforward and concise when it would be better to do so, and to
trust the good judgement honed as a lawyer to know just what voice will
work for each particular client or situation.
Lawyers are professionals who require language as their most important
tool. They write with it, argue with it, win or lose by it. A highly
educated group, most lawyers are good writers who have been writing for
all of their professional lives. The more seasoned ones (older!) will
probably have had the advantage of a fairly rigorous background in the
principles of English grammar and syntax. The younger ones, for the
most part, may not have had this advantage but will have learned
So why do so many lawyers sign up for the writing courses offered by
the Writing Consultants (http://www.writingconsultants.com)? I believe it is because they are ready to change an
age-old trend. For centuries lawyers have donned, with their robes, a
cloak of discourse that is "lawyerly." Certain that statements such as
"It is our recommendation to you as regards the course of action that
you can probably pursue that all money is drawn out of the trust fund
by the executors of the said fund" are essential when giving their
professional opinions, they often lose touch with the simple mortals
who read this language.
These "mortals" include layman like me who approach legal documents
with much trepidation. By very definition, any time I would require a
lawyer would probably be a stressful time. And research shows (yes, you
can begin a sentence with a coordinant conjunction for emphasis) that
as soon as readers are stressed, their reading level drops to about a
grade six! Other mortals include judges, who beg us to instruct lawyers
that they, too, appreciate accessible, plain language for even such a
complex document as a factum. Lawyers, themselves, admit that in the
course of a busy day, they do not have the energy to decode lawyerly
The word "decode" is critical. Stanley Fish, maverick academic that he
might be, writes that "there is no single way of reading, only 'ways of
reading' that are extensions of community perspectives [giving the
reader] the central role in the production of meaning." That's scary
theory, for it means that the reader's decoding is up for grabs.
We have found that a quick course is best for lawyers. We are certain
that lawyers will reduce their unbillable hours by reducing the
reviewing time of their own work and the work of their associates,
admin staff, clerks, and students. A one-or two-hour module is usually
enough to illustrate the importance of writing from a reader-focused
philosophy. We start with what we know readers appreciate:
• a narrative line
• focus before detail
• an up-front conclusion (point-first writing)
• "eye candy" such as readable fonts, good
margins, plenty of white space
We illustrate the Readability or "Fog" Index, showing how the sentence
above, "It is our recommendation to you as regards the course of action
you can probably pursue that all money is drawn out of the trust fund
by the executors of the said fund," registers well over the acceptable
Flesch Grade Level of "12" (the Globe is 10 or under). A rewrite in
plain language reduces the passage to an acceptable level of 9 or 10,
"We recommend that it is probably best for the executors to draw all
money out of the trust fund."
No matter what the length of a document might be, strong paragraphs and
focused sentences are the backbone of dynamic writing. Here's a
checklist lawyers can use to test their writing skills at the paragraph
and sentence level:
1. Do the paragraphs include
control sentence that relates to your main point (thesis, argument,
support details to make your ideas focused and persuasive?
transition words to give coherence to your thoughts?
2. Are the sentences an appropriate length (about 12 to 20 words)
and varied in pattern?
3. Is legalese avoided wherever possible?
4. Are most sentences constructed in the active
5. Are tabulated (bulleted) lists parallel in their design?
6. Has the document been thoroughly (unequivocally) checked for
spelling, grammar, and punctuation?
In the millennium, our jobs have become more demanding of our
communication abilities. Law firms who invest in writing seminars
report not only improved skills, but also heightened staff morale. More
confident in their writing, speaking, and overall ability to articulate
well, lawyers and staff develop the personal confidence and
self-reliance to match their professional expertise!
Confronting the Everyday Challenges of
Everyday Writing by
In my more jaded moments, I like
to quip that my first teaching career as a high school teacher
guaranteed me a clientele for my second career as a writing consultant!
What really happened was that following the school boards' de-emphasis
on grammar and composition in the 80s and 90s, few students learned
anything about writing for the business or professional world. Class
time that might have been available for writing was filled with
literature classes or forays into "creative" work. Thus the basic
principles of clear, coherent, and concise writing - not to mention
correct grammar, punctuation, and pleasing style - were never addressed.
The policy-makers somehow hoped
that basic rudiments would seep into students' writing by exposure to
good literature. But this miracle did not always happen and we teachers
thus graduated almost two decades of students who did not have the
experience necessary to write well in their chosen professions. Indeed,
even some of you may find that though writing is essential to your
business day, it is not one of your favourite tasks. Little wonder,
when you are faced with the obfuscation so prevalent in business
Several years ago, an engineer
friend approached me with a problem. He feared that the work of his
staff (graduate engineers and MBAs) was just ambiguous enough to make
him subject to libel if one of their memos were to be introduced in
court. My friend, who specialized in quality control in the consumer
industry, documented his findings on all aspects of an operation,
including safety. What he worried about most was an accident that his
staff might have foreseen and forestalled had they reported the
possibilities clearly enough. He wanted me to teach them this clarity.
And thus the Writing Consultants
was born. We specialize in custom-designed writing seminars for
consultants, engineers, accountants, lawyers, and support staff. We
believe that writing, though often a seemingly formidable task, is a
skill that can be learned. The courses are designed to ease writers
into the writing assignment and to provide guidelines that will allow
them to produce well-organized, unified, coherent, and correctly edited
documents. Our approach is almost entirely reader-centered. We know,
for example, that it is rarely the writer who controls the
interpretation of his or her writing. Though as writers we would hope
to be in charge, once the word has left our finger tips or has been
uttered by our voices, it is the reader of that text who interprets its
meaning. That's rather scary stuff to consider!
So what can we do to decrease
the gap between reader and writer?
When approaching a writing task,
you might begin by considering earnestly the following:
Most people begin with the
background of a topic. It's an easy way to start, but not always the
best way since the one thing readers often know is the history or
background of an issue. What they are interested in is the new
information. If you begin with the old material, readers will skim, and
that opens your text to misreading.
- Who will be reading this
document? Don't be naive here. Many pieces of writing are forwarded to
readers you might never anticipate. This is especially true of email!
- What does your reader want
- What does your reader
- How will your reader be
using the information?
- How will it affect your
reader? Readers have emotional responses to writing. Think of how you
might respond to a government tax letterhead in your daily mail!
- How does your reader feel
- What is your reader's
Here's a good trick to try to
ensure that your beginning has substance. Begin with these seven words:
"Today I want to tell you that . . .."
Finish off the sentence and you will be left with a strong purpose
statement, a statement that will allow both you and your reader to know
immediately what you are going to focus upon. Make sure that you begin
each ensuing paragraph with a similarly clear topic sentence and you
will have a coherent piece of writing. Massage the sentence a little if
it sounds too abrupt. Here's an example:
Today I want to tell
you that because of a strike at the factory, we will be three weeks
late with your delivery >>> Because of a strike at the
factory, we will be three weeks late with your delivery >>> I
regret to tell you that because of a strike at the factory, we will be
three weeks late with your delivery.
Notice that I am not stressing what
type of document you are creating. I am often asked to teach a specific
genre to an organization. One firm might want to learn how to write
winning proposals; another might want to focus on reports or letters.
But no matter whether you are writing memos, email, letters, proposals,
reports, journal articles, or speeches, good writing begins at the
sentence and paragraph level. Only the template or the length changes
according to the document. Even when the tone of a particular piece of
writing demands more or less formality, it still boils down to audience
awareness and clearly focused sentences and paragraphs.
Consider the time an editor or
reader might spend decoding this sentence:
Receipt of this notice
prompted me to make new inquiries, making use of Internet technology
which had not previously been available, in a new attempt to locate the
Conversely, consider the reading
ease if the sentence had been written like this:
When I received this
notice, I tried again to locate the company profile. This time I used
Internet technology previously unavailable.
Turning now to the next
question to be discussed, there is in regard to the subject of customer
development activities one basic principle when attempting to formulate
a way of approaching decisions as to how to regain client accounts lost
or diminished over the last five-year period that we have not addressed
up to the current and present time. (59 words)
And here's its rewrite:
The next question
concerns client development. We have not yet addressed one important
principle: deciding how to regain client accounts lost or diminished
over the last five years. (28 words)
Many writers today underestimate
the importance of good formatting. In fact, often a change in the
amount of white space, the addition of some spiffy point-form
tabulation, or scanning headings to act as a "roadmap" through the
document can do wonders. Here, for instance is a passage that is
difficult to access:
The performance returns
in all three summaries are calculated as of December 31 in each year;
assume all distributions made by the Fund are reinvested in additional
units without charge; and are not reduced by any redemption charges,
optional charges or income taxes payable by you.
Here's a rewrite in point form that
is somewhat easier to read, but still rather heavy looking:
The performance returns
in all three summaries are:
Here's the final rewrite, lightened
up as befits millennial writing:
- calculated as of December
31 in each year;
- assume all distributions
made by the Fund are reinvested in additional units, without charge;
- are not reduced by any
redemption charges, optional charges or income taxes payable by
The performance returns
in all three instances are
Many of my course participants
express their frustration over not having learned how to organize,
write, or edit their written material. Because they have no background
in the grammar or mechanics of our language, they are wholly reliant on
whether or not something "sounds right." But having been exposed to so
much poor grammar in their daily lives, what "sounds right" is often
wrong! In any given group of ten, for instance, at least eight will
choose "I" as the correct pronoun case to follow the preposition
"between" in a construction such as "between you and I."
- calculated as of December
3 in each year
- assume all distributions
made by the Group are reinvested in additional shares, without
- are not reduced by any
redemption fees, optional charges, or income taxes payable by the
But because they do not know
what a "preposition" is, or what "case" means, they cannot understand
that a preposition requires the objective case of the pronoun and the
resulting correction to "between you and me."
Grammar has a bad reputation.
For years students have found it difficult, boring, and not hip. The
Grammar Brush-Up and Grammar Booster courses offered by the Writing
Consultants bring grammar to an adult level that is stimulating,
enlightening, and fun. Participants are amazed at how much they can
learn or relearn in a three-hour period.
In the millennium, our jobs have
become more demanding of our time and our communication abilities.
Research work can require difficult reporting as we cull through,
select, and synthesize the material. Frequently, we do not even have
the luxury of proofreading or editing this work as thoroughly as we
would like. But the steps to good writing and editing can be learned
and the process will become more natural and automatic with practice
Organizations who have invested
in writing seminars report not only increased office productivity, but
also heightened staff morale. Employees are more confident in their
writing, speaking, and overall ability to articulate well. They gain
the personal confidence and self reliance to match their professional
Its Discontents by
In the 15 years that I’ve been operating the Writing Consultants, I
never cease to be astounded at how the participants in my courses yearn
for grammar! I usually finish each session with a “Grammar Tease,” and
if there’s time, a “Grammar Brush-Up.” Inevitably the course
evaluations request more grammar. Not one to say no to a new gig, I’ll
return to the client with a “Grammar Booster” course.
Though as children most of my course participants had disliked the
subject, now that they are in the work world they are anxious to catch
up with what they missed. They tell me that their work, both written
and oral, is undermined by their fear that it is error-ridden. They
want the skills to write and speak with confidence.
All that most students remember of their grammar classes is their
English teachers drawing lines and scribbles over the board in a
desperate attempt to show them how to parse a sentence. But this
happened when students were young and unable to understand the fine
discipline that grammar entails. English grammar is a sophisticated
discourse; its rules are far more nuanced and fluid than teachers
conveyed or than young students were able to grasp.
Understanding grammar, that is understanding how our language works, is
essential to good communication. Taking the time to learn more than the
basics pays dividends in our facility to write sentences with
variation, rhythm, and aplomb. Proofreading becomes easier because we
are able to spot errors and correct them with certainty. We are able to
risk eccentric sentence structures because we have the confidence to
know that they are grammatically correct even if somewhat stylistically
There’s a bonus, too: once we understand the rules, we are able to
break some! Both H.W. Fowler and Joseph Williams list as “superstition”
or “mythology” many of the rules we cling to. Here are a few:
1. Don’t split infinitives.
2. Don’t start a sentence with a
coordinate conjunction such as “And,” “But,” or “So.”
3. Don’t start a sentence with “Because.”
4. Never end a sentence with a preposition.
5. Don’t use “which” in a restrictive clause
So next time you’re anxious about such rules, try not to fret. Pick up
a grammar book, go on the web, or ask a colleague; you’ll probably be
pleasantly surprised at the liberty you can have stylistically when
unhampered by “superstitious” rules. Understanding the grammar that
allows you to use these structures is the key.
Here’s a quick test. Each sentence has a grammar error (or two). Most
of us will be able to find and correct the error. The real test,
however, is to be able to explain the rule underlying the correction.
Try your luck and email me for the answers:
1. Everyone was asked to turn
in their results.
2. The group of protesters are
3. There is no one as
experienced as her.
4. I feel sick, however I will
still try the test to see if I make less errors this time.
5. Fortunately, Audrey and
myself can do it.
6. Irregardless of what you
think, none of the performers were trained.
7. It was me who you spoke to.
8. Neither John nor Brenda
know the answer.
9. Because it was her fault,
she felt badly about the accident.
10. He is a
real fast runner.
Email by Jane Griesdorf
Email is one of the many
challenges facing us in our daily writing. Because of its speed and
broadcasting ability, it is fundamentally different from paper-based
communication. More conversational-like, it can easily become sloppy
and ambiguous. Thus, though the advantages of a virtual workplace are
many, and essential, we must make sure that our ability to communicate
well remains a high priority within this framework.
Email is not as rich a method of
communication as a face-to-face or telephone conversation. Your
correspondent may not be able to tell if you are serious or kidding,
frustrated or euphoric. Sarcasm, for example, is particularly dangerous
in email dialogue. While the medium itself would seem to encourage
writers to disclose personal information, tell jokes, pass on gossip,
and pitch incomplete ideas, you should always be wary of doing so.
Courts have consistently ruled that workplace email is not the property
of the sender but rather the property of whoever owns the system.
Anything you say via email might be used against you!
Here are some tips I found on
one of the many OWLs (On-Line Writing Labs) available to students of
writing. You can connect to these OWLs via my website through "Links."
There is lots of interesting material to browse through on those sites,
so do have fun!
Context: In a conversation,
there is usually some form of shared context. With email, however, you
can't assume anything about your correspondent's location, time, frame
of mind, health, affluence, age, or gender. Be sure, therefore, that
you give some context.
Short Paragraphs: Frequently the
mail will be read in a document window with scrollbars. This makes it
harder visually to track long paragraphs. Consider breaking up your
paragraphs to only a few sentences apiece.
Line Length: A good rule of
thumb is to keep your lines under 75 characters long. Why 75 and not
80? You must be sure to leave a little room for the indentation or
quote marks your correspondents might want if they are going to quote a
piece of your email in their reply.
Terser Prose: Try to keep
everything on one "page." In most cases, this means twenty-five lines
FYI: If you are offering
non-urgent information that requires no response from the other person,
prefacing the subject line with "FYI" (For Your Information) is not a
bad idea. For time-critical messages, typing "URGENT" is a good idea.
And finally, the following
important principles of effective writing apply as much to email as to
any other form of written correspondence. Be certain always that your
work is well organized, natural, courteous, concise, clear, correct and
jargon-free. Your readers will be able to access your messages easily
and look forward to hearing from you regularly!
The Importance of Being Eloquent by
Jane Teng, 3rd Year Co-op Student
The room was already packed and
it was only ten to nine. I managed to find a spot in the last row.
Silently, I surveyed the classroom. I spotted her right away, Jane
Griesdorf, the instructor. Standing in a corner, she was handing out
some purple binders and packages. "Suave" and "imperturbable"; these
two words surfaced in my mind. This usually means that she will be a
hard marker. I was right. The class began and she said: "I am the high
school English teacher whom you thought you would never see again!" I
thought of Mrs. Ancans, whom my essays could never satisfy. That was my
first day of MGTC36 Management Communications.
Being the brave soul that I am,
I stayed, along with some thirty-odd others. We wrote e-mails, reports
and proposals; we stood up in front of the entire class and gave
presentations; we endured the merciless critiquing of our papers, and
we improved. Did you know that there is "trend" in English writing?
Well, the "as per our discussion" is passé, passive voice is
ugly, and "in these tough economic times" is too much of a
cliché. Instead, "as we discussed" is in vogue, active voice is
hot, and "defog" those long sentences if you want to be a trendy
writer. As if all that was not enough, we were painfully reminded of
the most horrible part of the GMAT: grammar! A terrifying word, yes,
good practice for those aptitude tests though. Every Tuesday morning we
took another step towards becoming the confidant, articulate, and
sophisticated professionals we were destined to be.
The reality is that almost every
job today emphasizes written and oral communication skills. For
students who are aware of the fact that their skills need to be
improved or those who just want to add some pizzazz to their writing,
this is the ideal course. Of course, it also helps to have an
instructor who has been teaching English for nearly all her life: more
than fifteen years in high school and another twelve years teaching
professional adults as a consultant. Ms. Griesdorf's approach is
practical, realistic and job-oriented. Upon completion of this course,
students are expected to speak and write with style in a more focused
and grammatically correct manner.
And I began to say: "This is
THE STAR: January 20, 2001 IN PURSUANCE OF
PLAIN ENGLISH FORTHWITH
by Bob Aaron
It's time for lawyers and
contracts to use plain English
One of the worst examples of
outdated legal writing style today is the document most familiar to the
home-buying public - the standard form "Agreement of Purchase and Sale"
used by the Toronto Real Estate Board and the Ontario Real Estate
Association. It must have been written by lawyers because no real
estate agent or broker could ever write this badly.
What's wrong with this type of
legal writing today? Recently, I met with Jane Griesdorf, owner of "The
Writing Consultants" (http://www.writingconsultants.com).
A former English teacher, she devotes her career now to teaching
lawyers and other professionals to write clearly and effectively. She
tells lawyers to avoid the use of "lawyerisms," which create a cloud of
fog around the meaning of the document.
Several weeks ago, Griesdorf
presented a program called "Write This Way" to a sold-out seminar at
the Law Society of Upper Canada. Here are just a few of the worst
examples of lawyer writing she cited:
By these guidelines, the standard
sale agreement is a textbook example of how not to write a contract.
Its longest sentence, for example, is 207 words, followed in the same
paragraph with another sentence of a mere 140 words. How a lay person,
never mind a lawyer, is supposed to understand this awful prose is
- Use of meaningless doubles,
such as any and all, first and foremost, full and complete.
- Redundant modifiers, such
as completely finish, past history, final outcome, terrible tragedy,
period of time, end result.
- Throat clearing -
unnecessary words such as basically, actually, virtually and
- Overly long sentences and
- Heavy language with
mouthfuls of unnecessary words, such as pursuant to, at your earliest
convenience, in all probability.
- Stacking numerous
prepositional phrases in the same sentence
- Archaic vocabulary - words
nobody uses anymore, except lawyers.
Purchaser's deposits in
this contract are not merely attached - they are "submitted herewith."
One paragraph begins with the
words, "it is understood that. . ." The real estate associations must
be afraid that removal of those totally unnecessary words will mean
that the parties to the agreement do not understand what follows.
If the offer is not accepted
within a time limit, it becomes "null and void." Not just null. Not
just void. But null and void.
The parties "acknowledge and
confirm" broker representation, presumably because one of these words
alone is just not enough.
The purchaser's deposit is not
held in trust until completion. It is held in trust "pending"
At the bottom of the agreement,
the purchasers and vendors cannot simply sign the agreement. Breaking
numerous rules of writing clarity, the document's turgid prose : "In
witness whereof I have hereunto set my 'hand and seal.'"
The style of the standard
condominium resale agreement is somewhat better, if only because its
longest sentence is a mere 138 words instead of 207. It repeats many of
the style problems with the freehold offer, but goes on to use many
If the condominium board must
consent to the sale, for example, the vendor must apply "forthwith."
Immediately, or even right away, is probably not soon enough. Deadlines
in the agreement may be amended by lawyers "who may be specifically
authorized in that regard."
Builder agreements for new homes
and condominiums are many times longer than the resale forms used by
the real estate boards. Typically, they are much worse in terms of
writing clarity and simplicity of terminology. In other fields of law,
ordinary contracts written by lawyers often begin "This indenture
witnesseth. . ." Leases are written "in pursuance of" the Tenant
It is not just contracts that
are filled with "legaldegook" (a combination of legalese and
gobbledegook). In their daily correspondence, many lawyers still
persist in writing like they think lawyers are supposed to write.
The real estate industry, and
those responsible for the creation of its contracts, should be leaders
in the area of making consumer contracts user-friendly and readable in
plain, everyday language. It's time to scrap the old contracts and use
plain English to say the same thing.
Bob Aaron is a Toronto real