Thursday, April 29, 2010

Don’t write like a lawyer

Don’t write like a lawyer. If you strive to write clear, concise prose to inform, educate or entertain your readers, then lawyers are not good models for you. Lawyers write for purposes different from yours.

For example, a contract is a number of words carefully written for the purpose of precisely defining what two or more parties agree to do and what will happen if a party does not do what it agreed to do. A good contract is exhaustive: It tediously includes every possibility that the lawyers can think of. This is not prose as you and I think of prose.

Here’s a different kind of example. During a recent visit to a certain university, I noticed that the security people had posted an emergency-information placard at several locations on the campus. The placard says, in part:

What do I do in the event of an emergency?

• Assess the situation
• Keep yourself safe
• Make the environment as safe as possible
• Summon assistance

The giveaway that the lawyers wrote it

Almost certainly, the lawyers – not the security people – wrote those instructions.* The giveaway is that the instructions are so general as to be silly. They convey no more information than anyone capable of reading the placard would already know:

“Assess the situation.” What student in his right mind would fail to do this? He would do it, and he would do it accurately; for example, he would not confuse a fire with a flood, or a flood with an armed robbery.

“Keep yourself safe.” The student doesn’t need to read a placard in order to know enough not to walk into a burning building or wade into raging floodwaters.

“Make the environment as safe as possible.” Of course, but how? For example, what is the location of the nearest fire extinguisher and how do I use it?

“Summon assistance.” Would any literate adolescent not think of calling 9-1-1 if his dormitory were on fire, or if he heard screams on the floor below?

In short, the students know the instructions are silly and the lawyers who wrote them know they are silly.

Try this thought experiment

Imagine a young woman named Linda, who has received an acceptance letter from that university and will begin classes in the fall. Imagine also that Linda’s father happens to be the head of security at the same university.

If Linda asked her father about safety on campus, would he speak to her in the same empty language that he used on the placard?

Of course not. The language on the placard is not intended to inform students; it is intended to sway juries. If a student is ever burned or drowned or robbed or injured in any way, the university will have some evidence that it told students what to do in emergencies. All the lawyers want from the placard is plausibility.

But why make the instructions so general? Because if the instructions were too specific, injured students or their families could claim that the students were injured (or more severely injured) because they had followed or tried to follow the instructions.

The Takeaway: Don’t write like a lawyer. Lawyers write for purposes different from yours. Most of what they write is intended to be exhaustive, plausible or intimidating. That doesn't mean it's wrong. But it does mean it's not prose as you and I think of prose.

*I say almost certainly because there is a chance that the instructions were written by a security chief who habitually writes like a lawyer – or who was trained as a lawyer.

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