The Art of Good Writing

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Does what you think get lost in translation?

Some in-house lawyers are excellent at providing clear, concise and unequivocal written advice that is easy for their non-lawyer colleagues to understand. Yes, I did say unequivocal. Others, however brilliant their intellect, miserably fail. How can you avoid your wisdom being lost in translation?

Here are my 10 rules for writing business briefings well:

1. What are you being asked? – When you were doing exams, I am certain that at least one tutor reminded you to “always answer the question.” Nobody gets a First for writing an academic treatise in business.
2. One sheet of paper, please – Brevity is essential. Business people are busy people. They want to quickly understand what you say.
3. Keep it simple – Simplicity is key. Ask yourself “Can I use a simpler word?”.
4. Short sentences – A good sentence should be between 10 and 15 words long. Simple declarative sentences work best. One idea or an element thereof per sentence.
5. Avoid lawyer language – avoid words like “thereof” and “outwith.” You would not write to your mother like that. So why a business colleague?
6. Write Actively – Active writing – when the subject of the sentence does the writing – is far more engaging. “The Judges reached a decision,” rather than “A decision was reached by the judges.”
7. Citations – the reader needs to know what the law is, not the origin. So drop the case names and section numbers.
8. Purge Jargon – Jargon is a wall designed to keep the experts in and the layman out. Avoid it at all cost.
9. Don’t write in “business speak” or cliches. You may think it makes you part of the team, but it is lazy self expression. “Drilling down to another level of granularity” may sound cool. It just means looking at the detail.
10. Be Unequivocal – My most contentious point: Socratic argument should be left in the moot hall. You are paid to give an opinion. So state your view. There is no problem if you qualify your advice. Be confident: come down on one side of the issue.

Practice these rules and in a short period, they will become instinctive. Then you will never be lost in translation again.


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