20 ways to write like a tool

5th of July, 2013

I used to write a column for the world’s biggest law blog, Above the Law. I sometimes wrote about writing, which lawyers inevitably struggle with despite its being such a major part of their profession. This post was my most popular, with more than 50,000 views and 1,300 Facebook likes. Enjoy …

Ever see Fight Club? Yeah, me neither. The 1999 Brad Pitt movie was more of a cult film than a commercial success, although it did make back its costs. But the movie did have a line that became something of a meme, and was once recognized by Premiere magazine as the 27th greatest line in movie history (which seems dubious, but whatever):

The first rule of Fight Club is you do not talk about Fight Club.

If only lawyers had the same rule.

You see, being a lawyer is like being a member of an elite club. OK, maybe not as elite as we like to think; there are more than a million members in the US. But elite enough. And the problem is, too many of us are dying to show off to others that we’re members of law club. And one of the ways we do it is by trying to sound like a lawyer when we speak, and especially when we write. This is a problem because sounding like a lawyer is the same as sounding like a tool.

I’ve come up with 20 lawyerisms that do nothing to advance the message you’re trying to send, but instead show that you’re a member of law club. And that you sound like a tool.

How many of the 20 do you use?

1. Pursuant to. This is the granddaddy of them all. No real person would ever say “pursuant to” in conversation, unless what they really meant was “I’m a lawyer; punch me in the head.” Replace this legalese monstrosity with English words, like “under,” or “following,” or even “as required by.”

Read the other 19 lawyerisms here. Avoid the comments; they’re anonymous and useless.

500-word boxes

Little boxes of words

3rd of July, 2013

One of the hardest things about writing a book is the tendency to get overwhelmed by the size of the project. It can be debilitating when you’re struggling to get a hundred words onto the page and you still have to write another hundred thousand.

To fight this, I make a bunch of little boxes on one of the whiteboards in my office (I love whiteboards). Each box represents 500 words. Every time I finish five hundred words, I hold a tiny celebration where I get up from my desk and fill in one of the boxes. (OK, very tiny. No music or cake.) The minuscule endorphin rush that comes from doing that is often enough to help me head into the next five hundred. Once all the boxes are filled (for me, this was at 48,000 words), I have a slightly bigger celebration (with cake, maybe) out of wiping the board clean (after taking the above photo, of course) and making a new set of empty boxes.

It’s silly, but I find it helps. Do you have any traditions like this to help you focus on the day’s words instead of the entire project? Tweet me at @jayshep and share your secrets.

The 100 most niveous words

25th of June, 2013

I was minding my own business, trolling through Twitter (follow me at @jayshep), when I came across a tweet that caught my attention: a list of (purportedly) the 100 most beautiful words in the English language. (Hat tip to @lmaverick and @jordan_law21.)

I was intrigued. I love language and writing, and I was curious to see how someone could come up with the “most beautiful” words. I clicked through to the list, which was on a website called AlphaDictionary. Turns out the list was compiled by a gentleman named Dr. Goodword, a poet and doctor of linguistics whose real name is Robert Beard. Anyway, I checked out his list of beauty.

And was thoroughly disappointed.

The list is a random collection of words, mostly of French or Latin origin, that exude pomposity and stuffiness. (It’s not even 100 words long; notwithstanding the title, the list goes to 110.) The list could not be more subjective. It is a tossed salad of words that must appeal on some level to the good doctor: how else to explain the inclusion of both cockle and palimpsest? You will never have any reason to use many of the words in the real world: I doubt you will ever describe a friend as being potamophilous (loving rivers) or foudroyant (dazzling).

Besides being words of limited value (for the most part), they are also all polysyllabic (except for lilt and lithe, two of the words that actually belong there). And that brings me to my point:

Lawyers (and apparently, poets and linguistics PhDs) seem to think that the more syllables you use, the smarter you sound. They are wrong. As Churchill said, “Broadly speaking, the short words are the best, and the old words best of all.” (And by old, he meant words of Anglo-Saxon origin instead of French or Latin.) Forgive me, but I’m going to go with Sir Winston over Dr. Longword.

A good writer (which all lawyers should aspire to be) strives to get his or her message across in as few words and syllables as possible, so as to not waste the reader’s time. It’s easy to find fancy, French- or Latin-sounding words to decorate your writing like frosting flowers on a cake. (Which are sickly sweet and empty, if you extend the metaphor.)

It’s much harder to find the right simple words to express your ideas.

Are simple words more beautiful? Decide for yourself. Compare Dr. Goodword’s list with the Oxford English Dictionary’s list of the 100 most common words in the English language. In the latter list, the top 44 words are all one syllable, as are 89 of the top 100. Also, the top 25 verbs are all monosyllables. These are the words without which our beautiful language cannot be written. They radiate beauty in their simplicity.

Lawyers: embrace the short, old words. And ignore the “beautiful” words like niveous (which means “snowy”). (Not that you’d ever need to know that.)

originally published on The Client Revolution

Thou shall not …

25th of June, 2013

ShallLawyers love to use the word shall. It seems more impressive somehow than a mere will. Certainly far more regal than going to. (Dueling examples: “I shall attend the inaugural ball.” “I’m going to go to Monster Truck World.” See?) And we know how lawyers like to sound impressive.

Actually, does anyone ever say shall? Not unless it’s spoken by a man in a bowtie and followed by the phrase “… I pour?”

No, it’s really only used in writing. Legal writing. Actually, bad legal writing.

You see, shall is the worst word ever.

There are over 1,300 reported cases interpreting it. The word can be used to mean must, may, will, can, is, is entitled to, and should. It is often used to mean different things in the same paragraph, or even the same sentence. This is because lawyers often cut and paste things from other documents without bothering to see how the word was previously being used.

My advice: Don’t use it at all. Use must or will or whatever you really mean. Shall is ambiguous and pompous. Shall is weak, and shows that you don’t care that much about words. And if you’re a lawyer, that means that you’re in the wrong line of work.

But don’t take my word for it. Check out this excellent article by top plain-English legal-writing professor Joseph Kimble, “A Modest Wish List for Legal Writing.” (The “shall” section is at number 11; the rest of the short article is great for other plain-English tips.) And check out this case from the Oregon Court of Appeals that explains how shall doesn’t necessarily mean shall.

Lawyers: ask yourselves — do you want to win your cases? If you worry more about sounding impressive and less about the meaning of the words, than you likely shan’t.

[By the way, the common but archaic second-person-singular form of shall is shalt, as in "Thou shalt ..." But even lawyers don't do that.]

originally published on The Client Revolution

Trade Secrets — Chapter One

25th of June, 2013

Trade Secrets cover art

Many of you know that I’ve just finished writing my first thriller. During my career as a trade-secret litigator, I was always struck by how fiercely corporations would fight to protect their secrets. Some would do almost anything. So I got to wondering: what if a company would do anything—even kill—to protect its secrets?

When investigator (and recovering lawyer) Warren Archer lends his phone to a beautiful stranger, a ruthless corporation marks him for elimination. He must confront the secrets of his past to save himself, the woman, and a city.

Here is Chapter 1 of Trade Secrets. I hope you enjoy it. Let me know what you think. Send me a tweet or .

One less grammar post to read

25th of June, 2013

10 items or fewer, dammit!

The cool thing about English is that no matter how well you think you know it, there’s always something more you can learn. Every so often, I discover that I had been making a mistake. In this case, it involved the words less and fewer.

I considered myself reasonably well educated when it comes to these words. I knew that fewer dealt with countable nouns, like ducks and cupcakes. (“I have fewer cupcakes, but she has fewer ducks.” Or something.) And I knew that less dealt with uncountable nouns (or mass nouns), like body fat and waterfowl noise. (“Consequently, I have less body fat, but she has less waterfowl noise.” Who writes these examples?) The classic misstep is made by supermarkets everywhere, where the sign for the express checkout reads “ten items or less.” (Except at Whole Foods, who gets it right.)

Of course, some countable nouns still take less because they’re really things you measure instead of count, like money and time. (“Less than ten minutes,” or “less than five bucks.”)

But where I went off the rails was with the phrase one fewer. I figured that if the noun was countable, then fewer was the way to go. (“I have one fewer duck than she has.”) Turns out, I was wrong. The proper phrase is one less. The logical argument is that one thing can’t really be counted. But the real reason is that no one says “one fewer.” Well, almost no one. I did.

Until I looked it up.

The important thing, if you care about writing well, is that you continually try to improve by looking up things instead of just guessing. (I had to double-check that I didn’t mean continuously; I didn’t. I also double-checked the hyphen in double-check. Tough sentence.)

Update A couple of good posts on the same topic can be found at Jan Freeman’s Throw Grammar from the Train and Danny Dagan’s That Danny.

(Image courtesy of The IBD Blog.)