Lessons in powerful writing (from a lawyer)

The folks in your Legal Department might have a reputation for dry, stilted text. This judgment by Britain’s Lord Denning shows just how vibrant judicial writing (and yours, too) can be.

Previously, we’ve ranted about bad business writing that sounds like it was drafted by the guys in Compliance. But not all legal types write with desiccated dullness.

Lord Denning, one of the most celebrated judges of the 20th century, was renowned for his way with words. If you’ve ever studied law, you’ll know Denning is always fun to read, and not just because of his frequent disregard for precedent.

His prose is vivid and often tells a story, as in the following extract from Miller v Jackson, one of his most famous judgments.

Read and enjoy. Better still, adopt his style, and you’re well on the way to becoming a more persuasive writer.

In summertime, village cricket is the delight of everyone. Nearly every village has its own cricket field where the young men play and the old men watch. In the village of Lintz in County Durham they have their own ground, where they have played these last 70 years. They tend it well. The wicket area is well rolled and mown. The outfield is kept short. It has a good club house for the players and seats for the onlookers. The village team plays there on Saturdays and Sundays. They belong to a league, competing with the neighboring villages. On other evenings after work they practice while the light lasts.

Yet now after these 70 years a judge of the High Court has ordered that they must not play there anymore. He has issued an injunction to stop them. He has done it at the instance of a newcomer who is no lover of cricket.

This newcomer has built, or has had built for him, a house on the edge of the cricket ground which four years ago was a field where cattle grazed. The animals did not mind the cricket. But now this adjoining field has been turned into a housing estate. The newcomer bought one of the houses on the edge of the cricket ground. No doubt the open space was a selling point. Now he complains that when a batsman hits a six the ball has been known to land in his garden or on or near his house. His wife has got so upset about it that they always go out at week-ends. They do not go into the garden when cricket is being played. They say that this is intolerable.

So they asked the judge to stop the cricket being played. And the judge, much against his will, has felt that he must order the cricket to be stopped: with the consequence, I suppose, that the Lintz Cricket Club will disappear. The cricket ground will be turned to some other use. I expect for more houses or a factory. The young men will turn to other things instead of cricket. The whole village will be much the poorer. And all this because of a newcomer who has just bought a house there next to the cricket ground.

Here’s why Denning rocks at persuasive writing:

1. You know exactly where he stands.

There are some pretty disputable claims in this passage. (“Cricket is the delight of everyone”—really?) Not to mention non sequiturs such as the ominous assertion that without cricket, young men turn to “other things.” (Why, of course they do!)

Yet it’s hard to feel much sympathy for the miserable Millers—the troublesome twosome who’ve upset an entire village. I don’t need to tell you which party Denning found in favor of.

Dry, abstract legalese this isn’t. Heck, balanced this isn’t. But that’s exactly why he’s so persuasive—and readable. There’s no room for doubt about who’s in the wrong.

Lesson: The first rule of being persuasive is being clear about your point of view. Denning’s forthright style contrasts markedly with the evasive language so favored by your typical killjoy corporate lawyer.

So ditch mealy-mouthed corporate hedging, such as:

“We’re committed to valuing diversity.” (In other words, “We’re 100 percent male, pale and stale; what are we gonna do about it?”)

“We’re focusing on delivering added value.” (In other words, “We’re not sure what we’re doing, are we?”)

2. He uses simple words even a child could understand.

We ran Denning’s judgment through an online tool that calculates the Gunning Fog Index. This tool highlights in blue any words of three syllables or more. Here’s what Denning’s writing looks like:

Compare that light scattering of blue with the sea of impenetrable biz-babble in this text from Kodak:

The tool also gives you the Gunning Fog Index number. If the number is 16, it means a person would have to continued his or her full-time education until age 16 in order to understand the text.

Denning’s figure is 7.083. The figure for the Kodak text is 26.95.

Lesson: Don’t try to look clever by using fancy words. Smart people keep it simple. (Just so you know, Lord Denning gained degrees in math and law from the University of Oxford before taking to the bench.)

3. He’s in love with the full stop.

When we ran this text through the online Gunning Fog Index tool, it counted 30 full stops in a passage of 382 words.

That’s an average of 12 or 13 words a sentence. Some sentences are even shorter, as in this extract:

They tend it well. The wicket area is well rolled and mown. The outfield is kept short.

How does this short, punchy style compare with your writing?

Lesson: Run your own writing through the Gunning Fog Index. Make friends with the full stop. If you touch-type, give that third finger of your right hand a regular work out.

4. He breaks “the rules.”

To keep his sentences short, Denning even—gasp!—starts a sentence with “And”:

And the judge, much against his will, has felt that he must order the cricket to be stopped.

Huh? How could someone with degrees in math and law from the University Oxford make such a basic grammatical error? And he being all law-abiding, with his fancy robes and his big wig and his ability to decide the fates of men?

Er, maybe because those prescriptivists who tell you it’s wrong to start a sentence with “and” don’t know what the Foakes v Beer they’re talking about.

Lesson: Don’t just learn “the rules”; understand them. That way you’ll know when and how to break them to best effect.

5. He homes in on little details.

Like any decent lawyer, Denning’s got an eye for detail. But we’re not talking technical, legal, abstract detail. Rather, the little details that tell a story.

For example, he doesn’t just tell you there’s a cricket field. He paints a picture of it. A picture that conveys the time and care and love and sense of ownership the men have invested in this grassy patch for these last 70 years:

They tend it well. The wicket area is well rolled and mown. The outfield is kept short.

Aren’t you almost transported to a long summer’s evening in the village? Can’t you almost hear the sound of leather against willow as the men practice after work “while the light lasts.”

And what about the cows? The cows whose home was once the field that has now become a modern housing estate. The cows who “didn’t mind the cricket”.

The cows so docile and so unlike the wife. The wife who wasn’t merely annoyed by the cricket, but “got so upset about it that they always go out at week-ends.”

Did we really need to know about the cows? From a legal point of view, no. But it’s all part of Denning’s art of persuasion.

Lesson: To win people over, ditch abstractions and focus on specifics. Illustrate your point with a story—and highlight the little, telling details that make that story sing.

6. He eschews technical language.

The only technical legal word I can find in this passage is “injunction,” which would be hard to avoid. Not a single “heretofore,” “notwithstanding,” or “in the event of” to be seen.

One legal word that’s very obviously missing from Denning’s judgment is the word “plaintiff.” Instead, Denning labels the aggrieved householder with the much more concrete—and loaded—word “newcomer.”

Lesson: Jargon saps your writing of power. Replace technical words with something more human. Most business people would do well to start by ditching “stakeholder.”

7. Repetition, repetition, repletion.

Denning uses the word “newcomer” (see point 6) four times in this passage. That’s not an oversight.

He could easily have varied his language, by replacing three of his “newcomers” with words such as “Mr. Miller,” “the householder,” or “the plaintiff.” But had he done so, his message would have lost much of its power.

Lesson: At school, you were probably taught to avoid verbal repetition. But don’t be afraid to use it to your ends (see point 4).

8. He uses contrast to hammer home his point.

Miller v Jackson takes a fairly mundane dispute between Miller and Jackson and turns it into great battle of values.

In this battle, there’s no room for nuance. Throughout the passage, Denning sets up a series of contrasts that leave you in no doubt about whose side you should take. The case might just as easily be known as:

Newcomer v Cricket Team of 70 Years

Docile Cows Who Don’t Mind Cricket v Neurotic Cow Who Can’t Bear It

No Lover of Cricket v Those Delighted by Cricket (aka Everyone, Naturally)

Horrible New-Build Housing Estate v A Beautiful Club House with Seats for Onlookers (aka the Whole Village, Minus Residents of the Horrible New-Build Housing Estate)

More Houses/Factory v Well-Kept Cricket Ground

Young Men Turning to “Other Things” (Drink, Women, Crime etc) v Young Men Playing Cricket Watched by Old Men

Lesson: If you’re trying to sell a new product, strategy or way of working, don’t just talk about its benefits. Contrast those benefits with the consequence of life without your big idea. Clare Lynch is chief business writer and trainer at Doris and Bertie, a U.K. communications agency that helps businesspeople ditch corporate-speak and talk like human beings. Follow her on Twitter @goodcopybadcopy. (Image via)


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