Style Guidelines Make a Difference – PART 1 – Setting the Stage: Some General Rules for Prospective Authors

Writing

Lawyers generally like to write.  It’s in their genes.  In addition to law review pieces, briefs, and other court-required documents, mastery of the written word in articles and website copy, among many other formats, can give you a leg-up in making your mark.

In this regard, I know whereof I speak (or write).  Some years ago, as a fledgling lawyer, I explored the specialty of estate planning and administration.  Following up, I wrote a piece on the “common disaster” (and related simultaneous death) clauses in wills.  In my manuscript, I took a Plain Language approach with a marketing spin, zeroing on the consumer, and sent it off to the Estate Planners Quarterly, a highly-regarded publication.  I then promptly forgot about it.

A couple of weeks later, to my surprise, the publisher called, saying he liked the piece and requested permission to publish it.  And lo and behold, he wanted to pay me for it, as well.  Bottom line, it was reviewed positively in a number of legal, investment, and advanced life underwriting  publications .  Stated simply, it helped to pave the way for me.  What made the difference?

In this three-part series, I will discuss over-arching considerations that will help give you a “leg- up.”  In the next two installments (Parts 2 and 3), I’ll discuss specific style guidelines that often make the difference between “make” or “break” re: getting published.  Let’s get started.

Readability:  In addition to having a love for writing, I followed some basic rules which may well be of interest.  With the possible exception of some legal documents, emphasize the practical rather than the esoteric.  Your text should follow smoothly, contain proper transitions, be written in sufficient detail, and not be choppy or terse. In other words, it must read well.

Avoid “wordiness” but, at the same time, statements of law should not be overly abbreviated or couched in virtually incomprehensible legalese.  In this regard, use short rather than long words, unless the latter have specific legal meaning.  Stated another way, use familiar words rather than professional jargon.  And, very important, target the specific audience in language they can understand, relate to, and act upon, whether it be professionals, business people, or consumers.

Paragraph and Sentence Length:  Paragraphs should be   brief.  Generally, when a new thought is introduced, start a new paragraph.  At times, when a concept must be explained in detail, you may find yourself writing a longer paragraph.  If the paragraph appears to be of excessive length—more than five or six sentences—you should reanalyze the point and consider breaking it down into another paragraph or another sub-grouping.  Indeed, short sentence are most often clear and direct, and hold the reader’s attention.  Further, as to sentences, it is recommended that following a period, use two spaces before starting the next sentence.

Use the Active Voice:  Whenever possible, write in the active voice.  For example, words such as is, was, were, and been may indicate the passive voice.  For example, “John Jones, of Jones and Jones, prepared the brief,” is the active voice.  “The brief was prepared by John Jones, of Jones & Jones” is the passive voice.

Define Localized or Specialized Terms:   If you are using a legal term or phrase that is peculiar to one state, region, or area of law, do not assume that readers are familiar with the term.  Be sure to iclude a brief definition of those readers who are from other states.  An example is the “friendly fire” rule, a well-known doctrine of property insurance law, but not familiar to all readers.

Gender-Neutral Text:  Use gender-neutral terms wherever possible (e.g., police officer is preferred over policeman; firefighter instead of fireman.  Also use a mix of masculine and feminine pronouns, using she or her for some sections of the piece and he or his for other sections.

Preparation of Manuscript: Stating the obvious (at times, honored in the breach), submit your manuscript in neat, readable format.  Use the special characters provided by your software.  Include tables, checklists, sample forms, or artwork only if absolutely necessary.

Caveat:  With the advent of the computer and its offshoots, including  e-mail and texting, as well as aspects of social media (with tweeting as a prime example) , good writing has often become the victim of cutesy phraseology.  “’Nuff said,” other than to emphasize that good writing is always acceptable, indeed appreciated, by observers.

All opinions, advice, and experiences of guest bloggers/columnists are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, practices or experiences of Solo Practice University®.

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