Pith and Elegance: Crafting Balanced Paragraphs
Some of my early essays in this column covered ways to make paragraphs better.[i] But it’s been a while since I returned to the idea of constructing good paragraphs. If you’ve been a long-time reader of The Advocate, you know tips for making strong paragraphs like sentence length, transitions, cohesion, and unity.
But what about balance? Or style? How do all these concepts come together?
Legal writing needs to function well, but it doesn’t need to be boring or so utilitarian that the reader can’t enjoy reading at times. So, let’s look at some way we can balance the need for function but also add occasional panache to our paragraphs.
My favorite analogy that describes the legal reader is that she is a juggler.[ii] It goes like this: “Most competent jugglers can juggle two and three balls with little effort. Likewise, most legal readers processing a sentence can keep two or three ideas aloft in their minds before the period cues that the sentence has ended and the ideas presented can finally be integrated. But things get risky from there.”[iii]
Trying to juggle too many balls, like trying to process a sentence with too many ideas packed into it, is taxing.[iv] And eventually both the juggler and the reader will drop something. Now for jugglers this isn’t bad, but when we are trying to convince our readers that our position is sound, causing them to drop an idea is bad. Indeed, “the reader will hate you for making her work so hard.”[v]
So, using shorter sentences with fewer ideas packed into them ensures that the reader can comprehend the ideas and still have the brain power to do the critical legal reasoning we are asking of her.[vi]
But Variety Does, Too
Prose sings when it has “variety in sentence length and structure, not adhering to strict medium-length-sentence-only rules.”[vii] To harken back to a favorite example I shared years ago: “This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several strung together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety.”[viii]
Did your mind start to drift because the sentences sounded so staccato? Again, not so critical when perusing this column, but using all short sentences is another sure-fire way to make your legal reader hate you.
So, how do you build paragraphs that allow the reader mental space to do legal reasoning yet keep her interested in the prose? By creating a balance.
First, the best paragraphs start with both a short word and a short sentence. Changing from heavy, long transitions to short ones “can lighten your writing overnight, almost as if you were oxygenating your style.”[ix]
One-word transitions followed by an easy-to-grasp assertion in the topic sentence help the reader for two reasons. One-syllable transitions (but, yet, and, nor, so) create a tempo that quickly shows the logical link between the last and current paragraph without creating an overload for the reader.[x] And short topic sentences quickly give the reader the context that will help her see the logic and reasoning in the paragraph.
While legal readers prefer short sentences, paragraphs can build.[xi] Longer sentences can add elegance, eloquence, and style to writing.[xii] That’s not to say that you should strive to simply add words to the sentence in the middle of a paragraph. In fact, sentences full of excessive adjective and adverbs, clichés, overdeveloped metaphors, or pretentious vocabulary can lead the reader to pay attention to the writing itself instead of the ideas and reasoning the writing needs to convey.[xiii]
So, if extra words don’t help, what does? First, never lose sight of the function of legal writing: to be clear, competent, readable, and precise.[xiv] When in doubt about whether writing is too much, simply don’t. Always err on the side of function. But, some subtle techniques used sparingly can add a touch of style.
Alliteration & Assonance: the repetition of vowel or consonant sounds.[xv]
Cadence: the rhythmic flow, like the beat of music.[xvi]
Parallelism: the use of similar grammatical structures in pairs or series of related words, phrases, or clauses.[xvii]
Onomatopoeia: words that represent sounds (these can make writing pop!).[xviii]
Metaphor & Simile: direct and indirect comparisons (but only if they are fresh or insightful).[xix]
And, occasionally joining two closely related sentences into a single, longer sentence can add some sophistication to your writing.[xx] When two sentences are about the same person (party or court), shift the one to a dependent clause to add some elegance.
Consider this example from a recent Idaho Supreme Court opinion:[xxi]
On intermediate appeal, the district court affirmed the magistrate court’s valuation of the BSA shares. It concluded that substantial and competent evidence supported the magistrate court’s determinations on valuing the BSA shares.
A simple shift could help the flow and eloquence:
On intermediate appeal, the district court affirmed the magistrate court’s valuation of the BSA shares, concluding substantial and competent evidence supported the magistrate court’s determinations on valuing the BSA shares.
Or look at this possibility:
Concluding substantial and competent evidence supported the magistrate court’s determinations on valuing the BSA shares, the district court affirmed the magistrate court’s valuation of the BSA share on intermediate appeal.
End with Pith
Finally, end the paragraph with another short, easy-to-read sentence. Not only does this sum up the ideas in the sentence, it allows the reader an opportunity to check her understanding of the content in the paragraph. And, as an added bonus, you can exploit a position of emphasis with a strong sentence.[xxii]
Connect the Branches
We all want our writing to interest the reader. So perhaps take this image as the parting message. Make your paragraphs shaped like Idaho’s state tree: The Western White Pine. These trees are small at the top, grow wider as they descend toward the forest floor, then narrow again as the trunk and the ground meet.
Tenielle Fordyce-Ruff is a member of the Idaho State Bar and an Associate Clinical Professor of Law at Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law Arizona State University.
[i] Tenielle Fordyce-Ruff, Ten Steps to Build Better Briefs Part I, 56-Sep Advoc 58 (2013); Tenielle Fordyce-Ruff, Ten Steps to Build Better Briefs Part II, 56-Oct Advoc 62 (2013).
[ii] Andrew M. Carter, The Reader’s Limited Capacity, 11 LJALWD 31, 31 (2014).
[v] Id. at 32.
[vi] Id. at 50.
[vii] Id. at 227.
[viii] Tenielle Fordyce-Ruff, Robust Writing: Crafting Better Sentences, 58-May Advoc 60, 61 (2015).
[ix] Ross Guberman, Point Made 226 (2d ed. 2014).
[x] Id. at 227. For more on transitions see Tenielle Fordyce-Ruff, Connections Count Part I: Generic Transitions, 60-Aug Advoc 46 (2017) and Tenielle Fordyce-Ruff, Connections Count Part II: Orienting & Substantive Transitions, 60-Sep Advoc 48 (2017).
[xi] See, Tenielle Fordyce-Ruff, Robust Writing; Crafting Better Sentences, 58-May Advoc 60, 66 (2015).
[xii] Ross Guberman, Point Made 235 (2d ed. 2014).
[xiii] Ann Enquist & Laurel Currie Oates, Just Writing: Grammar, Punctuation & Style for the Legal Writer 149 (3d ed. 2009). For tips to help reduce excessive words see Tenielle Fordyce-Ruff, 5 Tips to Combat Verbosity, 56-Jan Advoc 48 (2013) and Tenielle Fordyce-Ruff, Three Tips for Concise Writing 60-Oct Advoc 56 (2017).
[xiv] Ann Enquist & Laurel Currie Oates, Just Writing: Grammar, Punctuation & Style for the Legal Writer 148-49 (3d ed. 2009).
[xv] Id. at 150-51.
[xvi] Id. at 151-52.
[xvii] Tenielle Fordyce-Ruff, 5 Tips to Combat Verbosity, 56-Jan Advoc 48, 49 (2013).
[xviii] Ann Enquist & Laurel Currie Oates, Just Writing: Grammar, Punctuation & Style for the Legal Writer 158-59 (3d ed. 2009).
[xix] Tenielle Fordyce-Ruff, Adding Eloquence to Your Legal Writing with Figures of Speech, 56-May Advoc 48, 48 (2013)
[xx] Want more on joining independent clause correctly? See Tenielle Fordyce-Ruff, Creating Separation & Emphasis in Your Writing Part I: Joining Independent Clauses, 54-Feb Advoc 44 (2011) and Tenielle Fordyce-Ruff, Creating Separation & Emphasis in Your Writing Part II: Using Punctuation within Sentences, 54-Apr Advoc 43 (2011)
[xxi] Lamm v. Preston, 2023 WL 125250 at *4 (Idaho January 9, 2023).
[xxii] Readers pay more attention to information just before or just after a break in the text. Mary Beth Beazly, A Practical Guide to Appellate Advocacy 229 (5th ed. 2019).