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LIV President's Blog 2012

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How to improve your professional writing

How to improve your professional writing

One of the greatest strengths a lawyer possesses, whether established veteran or mere fledgling, is the ability to wield the English language. Writing ability is not only a valuable skill, it is an essential part of a successful legal career, beginning at university, where almost every assessment is a written piece, to the basic letters and written advices of legal practice.

Your natural talents may have propelled you into a legal career, and may take you far, but you still need to constantly improve, refine and critically evaluate your own writing.

There are many resources that discuss the topic of improving your writing, not just in a professional context, but in every aspect imaginable, including basic English skills, creative and fiction writing, and writing research papers. They contain endless hints and tips, and you will find many that are useful. Here are my favourites:

  • Ruthlessly edit, and eliminate unnecessary words. Or as Stephen King puts it: “kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.” Shorter sentences often have a greater impact. In a professional environment your reader is not perusing your work for pleasure, but is trying to get to the point.
  • Read aloud. It may seem boring or infantile, but reading your work aloud will help you test the sequence and rhythm of your work. You will be reassured about the logic and flow of your writing if it can withstand the scrutiny of a steady spoken reading.
  • Write every day. As with any discipline, there is no substitute for practice. Write often and for a wide range of purposes.
  • “Keep it simple, stupid.” This frequently employed phrase by one of my Leo Cussen mentors is a reminder of the need for unapologetic editing. A rich vocabulary is wonderful, but the purpose of professional writing is to convey information, not to showcase flowery prose.

Tips and writing tools are only useful if you learn to wield them well. If a piece of writing fails to communicate what the author intended, then it has failed in its very purpose.

Next time you sit down to begin a challenging piece of writing, think carefully about the purpose. Ask yourself why you are writing and think about the reader’s expectations.

Consider these questions:

  • What is the required depth of the content?
  • What tone shall I use?
  • Should I write with a personal or authoritative voice?
  • Are time and cost relevant factors to how I draft the piece?

Once you’ve worked out the basic foundations, consider which tools you can use to present your message clearly:

  • Headings: Well-chosen headings will give a logical structure to your writing.
  • Formatting: A simple layout will help you convey information clearly.
  • Vocabulary: Use the right vocabulary for your audience, and explain technical terms or provide a glossary if necessary.
  • Research, examples and anecdotes: Where appropriate, back up your argument with evidence and cite your sources.

When you have done a first draft, step away, take a break, then edit, redraft and finalise.

Once you are happy with your piece, don’t forget to read it aloud and see how it really measures up!

Radu Catrina is a member of the YLS Editorial Committee.

 

 
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