Writing for Your Reader
All writing involves two people—the writer and the reader. Fiction and non-fiction writers know who is reading their books. Their reading audience can sometimes be narrowed down to age, gender, socio-economic status, political views, or reading level. They write for that reader.
Lawyers also write with the reader in mind. When you write a brief for a judge, you first read the court rules to determine the format and style required. Then you research other winning briefs or call fellow lawyers who have written for that judge or panel of judges to get hints as to what they like and respond to.
The technique is the same when writing for clients or consumers. Except now you’re writing for a reader who will not study what you write with a fine-toothed comb. This reader doesn’t need or understand footnotes. They’re not judges or fellow lawyers trying to test your argument. They’re reading for information.
How can you help them easily find that information?
- Replace legal vocabulary with plain English
- Define unusual or unfamiliar terms
- Vary format—Q and A, bullet points like this, numbered list
- Spell out the entire name or term before using an acronym
Consider the publication. Newsletters or e-blasts help you connect with existing clients, keeping your name in their minds for future referrals. Newsletters, whether printed or electronic are more formal than blogs, which are short with links to other information and social media. Feature articles cover a subject in depth. If you’re writing for the local bar newsletter, you can use some legal terms but if writing for the general public keep it simple.
Attorney Bob Kohn considered his reader when faced with a limit of a five-page brief for a U.S. District Court judge in Manhattan. He opted for a cartoon strip using pictures and words to present his position. The court accepted his brief, which was readable by the general public and the court.
Kohn’s cartoon strip brief might get lots of readers on Facebook whose members like photos. You don’t have to draw a cartoon, but you can post pictures of the people in your law firm, or of community events in which you participated with bits of information. Your content should be informative with links to your firm’s blog posts or e-newsletters or relevant articles written by others. LinkedIn and Google + are social media sites where the writing style should be both interesting and concise.
Twitter, which restricts the number of characters you can use for a message to 140, is the shortest of the social networks. Use it for short items of interest to your readers.
To keep readers reading:
- Use the “find” command to locate repetitive words on the same page; find synonyms for those words
- Mix sentence lengths
- Avoid run-on sentences
- Use action verbs
- Get rid of useless words; using fewer words improves speed, clarity, and impact.
And, last, review and revise. Let the article or blog or e-blast simmer and then read it for trouble spots. Remember it’s not a brief for a judge or fellow lawyer; it’s a story for your clients and future clients. Enjoy the telling.
Roberta Gubbins has served as the editor of the Ingham County Legal News. Since leaving the paper, she provides services as a ghostwriter editing articles, blogs, and e-blasts for lawyers and law firms. She is the editor of Briefs, the Ingham County Bar Association e-newsletter, and The Mentor, SBM Master Lawyers Section Newsletter.
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