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How Not to Write Like a Lawyer: Part 2

@ ProofreadingPal
August 19, 2022
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Last post, I wrote about how poorly lawyers write, often on purpose, with their passive voice, redundancies, and general wordiness.

So, now the time has come when you want to write about something that you might need to argue someday, whether in court or at a PTA meeting; something you may be held accountable for; or just something you want to make very clear to others. Resisting the temptation to use lawyer-speak, what should you concentrate on?

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This is numero uno. Define the issue, the property and people involved, the goal you want to achieve, the problems you anticipate, and whatever else is important to your argument.

And when I say “define,” I don’t mean pulling out a dictionary. I mean you must clarify what the words you’re using mean specifically in your argument.

For example, you’re writing a neighbor to explain that if they do not heed your previous requests to silence their dogs at night, you will call the authorities on them.

What needs to be defined here?

  • Just who the neighbor is and perhaps their proximate location to you (e.g., two houses down)
  • Just how many and in what manner you made the previous requests (e.g., calling them, knocking on their door)
  • “Silence their dogs”: you should say how many dogs, how loud they are, and what you consider “silence.” For example, you may want to make it clear, if they’re guard dogs, that you realize they’re supposed to raise the alarm if there is an intruder. However, the amount of noise the dogs are making is excessive and doesn’t seem to be an alert, just constant, unprovoked barking.
  • When “night” is: such as 10 p.m. to 7 a.m.
  • The “authorities”: the police, animal control, the HOA, whatever you have in mind
  • Your goal: good neighbor relations and quieter dogs

Or let’s say you’re threatening an auto repair place with going to the BBB if they don’t fix your car correctly this time: be clear about what’s wrong, what needs to be fixed, when you expect the work to be completed, and exactly what you plan to tell the BBB.

And once you’ve defined these terms, use the same language throughout the letter/petition/email/whatever. If you’ve made it clear you’re talking about the dogs, don’t call them “animals” or, for that matter, “your demon fur babies from hell.”


Of course, defining things is just a part of the overall goal of being 100 percent clear. (You’ll never achieve 100 percent; no one can. But the attempt is a worthy aim.)

So, watch your sentences. Keep them no longer than they need to be. Keep your paragraphs short too. Don’t repeat yourself. Don’t rant. Use a direct, rational tone.

Will writing only a couple short paragraphs work out your rage at the demon fur babies? No, save that for your journal or unfortunate spouse. You’re not writing to make yourself feel better. You’re writing to make your position super clear.

Watch Those Persons!

The three persons (first, second, and third) can be clarity destroyers. If you are talking about yourself, then you need to use the singular first person (I, me). Don’t say “we” if you’re not actually representing others with their express permission. Writing to the HOA about some rule you can’t stand? Go ahead and say, “we don’t like it,” and then define “we” with the names of the people you’re representing.

Second person causes even more trouble. In conversation, people love to use “you” when they mean “I.”

Ex: So, I’m standing there, and this guy comes up, and you know how you don’t want to say anything to strangers, so you’re just trying not to make eye contact, but then he hassles you.

No, he didn’t hassle “you,” he hassled “me.”

When you use “you” in written communication, you specifically mean the reader. Throughout this post, I am using “I” for me, Julia, and “you” for you, the reader. If you’re writing to a representative of a politician, for example, don’t say “you” when you actually mean the politician. Keep yourself aware of just whose eyes are going to be looking at the page.

And the worst of all can be the third person, the ever-mysterious, ever-shifting “them.”

Now, as I said, you need to define “them,” but the issue is that you’re probably going to have more than one “them” involved. In my barking dogs example, “they” can be the dogs, the owner, other neighbors, and the authorities.

This is where we get the infamous “party of the first part” and “party of the second part.” But stuff that nonsense and just refer to things by their name each time or at least only use pronouns when you’re sure the reader will know who or what “them” is each and every time. (Use the same approach with “it.”)

Ex. I can hear the dogs barking for hours clearly because they are excited or lonely and not because they are responding to a threat.

Ex. The mechanics at XYZ Garage did not fix the leak in the radiator even though they claimed they had.

Err on the side of caution here. If you’re not certain it’s completely clear who or what “they” are, name them.

Ex. The mechanics at your garage did not fix the leak in the radiator for my family’s car even though the mechanics claimed the car was fixed.

Use Only Words You Fully Understand

I covered this already in talking about using a thesaurus. In short, make sure you fully understand what a word means before you use it, and never “upgrade” to a fancier word to sound smart. If you’re not sure what a “municipality” is, just say “city” or “town.”

Especially Don’t Borrow Legal Terms

I want to add a final caveat to the previous post about using legal terms. Watch out not just for phrases like “fiduciary responsibility” and “intellectual property” but also like “sue” and “small claims court.” Are you really threatening to sue them or just report them? Is small claims really where the matter would go?

So, next time, you feel the need to write something “official,” say exactly what you mean in a calm manner and with great regard to clarity—you know, just like lawyers so often don’t.

Julia H.

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