Last week the ISBA sponsored a seminar on Effective Legal Writing. I was intrigued by the promo, which promised going beyond the usually drab basic stuff you can get from any decent style book. Greg Colomb, an English professor at the University of Virginia, taught the seminar. He did not disappoint. He was witty and thoughtful as we deciphered and rewrote samples of ineffective and effective writing.
The discussion about writing “flow” was particularly impressive. Greg emphasized two points.
1. Sentences are bundles of information. Readers understand longer, more complex information better when it arrives at the end of a sentence. The “architecture of a clear sentence” suggests placing short bundles of information before long bundles.
2. Clarity and directness depend on the first six words in your sentence. Use the six-word test to assure you are opening with a familiar subject taking important action.
Greg also discussed principles of writing persuasively. The crucial question for the writer is: What creates the mental disposition in my reader to do what I want? Readers have three tendencies the writer should acknowledge in trying to create that mental disposition:
1. Readers always remember details concerning the main character first.
2. Readers tend to hold the main character responsible.
3. Readers tend to judge events through the value system of the main character.
The seminar goes on my recommended list. Experienced writers and writers at the infancy of developing their style should benefit from it. More information about writing technique and style is available at the University of Virginia English Department’s web site, by clicking right here.