Thoughts on Legal Writing from the Greatest of Them All: Joseph M. Williams— Part I

By Gerald Lebovits

April 7, 2020

Thoughts on Legal Writing from the Greatest of Them All: Joseph M. Williams— Part I


By Gerald Lebovits

“It’s good to write clearly, and anyone can.”[1]

The Legal Writer continues its series on what we can learn from the great teachers of writing. In this column, we highlight the advice of a great writing teacher, Joseph M. Williams, from his preeminent book, Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace. In Part I of this column, we’ll address his lessons in clarity. In Part II, we’ll address his lessons in grace.

Williams was an English professor and linguist at the University of Chicago for 34 years. He pioneered the University’s writing program, known as “The Little Red Schoolhouse,” which focused on advanced academic and professional writing. He was also an influential writer in the field of language and writing pedagogy. His best-known work is probably Style. Now in its twelfth edition, Style is tailored to expert writers, giving them a methodology to write clearly and gracefully.[2]

Williams cared about the reader’s perspective. He believed that writers can create clear and graceful prose if they understand how readers will respond to a document’s features. In Style, Williams abstracted patterns and principles that characterize good writing. He also streamlined a virtuous circle that writers can follow to approach good writing — from a sentence to an entire document, from being clear to being graceful, and from writing well to thinking well. For his lifetime contributions to legal writing, Williams received the Legal Writing Institute’s Golden Pen Award in 2006.[3]

Williams died in 2008 at 75. But his legacy continues. After Williams’s passing, Joseph Bizup, an Associate Professor of English at Boston University, has edited Style’s eleventh and twelfth editions.[4] Here are our favorite favorites from Williams and Bizup’s Style.


“The more clearly we write, the more clearly we see and feel and think.”[5]

Writing is all about choice. Williams believed that choice is at the heart of clear and elegant writing. Good writers carefully choose what and how to write, what words to use, and how to arrange words in a well-organized text that readers find readable. After all, readers must understand the writers’ claims before accepting them. What Williams aimed to do in Style is to explain how to make sound choices to craft prose that’s clear to readers.[6]

Correct grammar isn’t everything. Williams recommended that writers make “the choices that define not ‘good grammar’ but clarity and grace.”[7] In his opinion, good writers don’t blindly obey all grammatical rules. Blind adherence to grammar undermines the efficiency of writing.[8] Instead, good writers choose which rules to observe and which to ignore.[9] Williams distinguished real grammatical rules from folklore. He thought that real rules define the fundamental structure of English (e.g., to use standard verb forms).[10] By contrast, writers should ignore folklore (e.g., not to begin a sentence with and or but).[11] In between are elegant options from which writers can choose to get the effect they want (e.g., to split or not to split infinitives).[12]


“Clarity is not a property of sentences but an impression of readers.”[13]

Use subjects and verbs to tell stories well. All writers, including legal writers, have a story to tell. Different writers tell the same story differently. Williams explained that good writers deliver well-told stories by identifying the main characters in subjects and expressing the characters’ actions in verbs.[14] That’s how good writers meet readers’ expectations of what clear and direct prose tell them: who the main characters are, and what they’re doing. Williams recommended a three-step procedure to detect and revise unclear sentences.[15]

  • Analyze: Stand in a beholder position to spot unclear sentences. For example, naming abstract nouns as simple subjects or using too many words (say seven or eight) before a verb signals unclarity that requires revision.[16]
  • Assess: Find the main characters and locate nominalizations (nouns derived from verbs or adjectives, often ending in suffixes like -tion and -ing) that name the characters’ actions.[17]
  • Rewrite: Turn nominalizations into verbs. Make the characters the subjects of these verbs. Use subordinating conjunctions to connect the segments logically.[18]

Keep useful nominalizations. Williams urged writers to avoid nominalizations. They make sentences dense.[19] For example, write “The committee intends to improve morale”[20] rather than “The intention of the committee is to improve morale.”[21] But he also reminded writers about the exceptions. He suggested keeping nominalizations when they “refer to a previous sentence,”[22] “replace an awkward The fact that,”[23] “name what would be the object of a verb,”[24] or “name a concept so familiar to your readers that it is a virtual character.”[25] In these situations, nominalizations make sentences clear, concrete, and cohesive. For example, write “I do not know her intentions,”[26] not “I do not know what she intends.”[27]

Choose between the active and passive voice. Williams wrote that the active voice is often better than the passive, but not always.[28] He recommended using the passive when “the agent of an action is self-evident,”[29] when “it lets you replace a long subject with a short one,”[30] or when “it gives your readers a coherent sequence of subjects.”[31] In these cases, the passive voice creates clear, concise, and cohesive sentences. For example, write “The president was reelected with 54% of the vote,” not “The voters reelected the president with 54% of the vote.”[32]

Carry information from old to new to create cohesion. Williams considered this “old-to-new” principle essential to achieving cohesion. He explained that cohesion is “a sense of flow”[33] that makes a passage “hang together.”[34] To create cohesion, good writers do two things. They start a sentence with old and simple information and end it with the new and complex.[35] Then, they begin the next sentence with the information appearing in the last few words of the last sentence and end it with idea new.[36] In this way, good writers help readers create a sense of cohesive flow. There’s also a balance in a passage’s overall cohesion and the clarity of individual sentences. Williams prioritized cohesion.[37]

String topics consistently to create local coherence. Williams defined “local coherence” as “a sense of the whole”[38] that allows readers to make sense out of the whole passage.[39] He explained that readers find a passage coherent when writers help them accomplish two tasks: to spot the topics of individual sentences quickly, and to recognize how these topics string together as a set of related ideas.[40] Williams further described how good writers create local coherence. They put consistent topics in subjects toward the beginnings of sentences so that readers can get to the topics quickly.[41] Then they sequence the sentences in a logical flow of connected ideas so that readers can easily understand what the whole passage is about.[42]


“Get beginnings straight, and the rest is likely to take care of itself.”[43]

Raise a problem; then offer a solution. Williams believed that to encourage readers to read on, good writers must do two things when they introduce prose. They “let readers know what to expect so that they can read more knowledgeably,”[44] and they “motivate readers so that they want to read carefully.”[45] He thought that the best way to do those things is to introduce a problem readers want to see addressed, and then address it.[46] Stimulated by a problem they care about, readers will willingly press on until they figure out how the writer solves the problem.[47] He also explained that a motivating introduction includes three parts: a shared context that offers some background, a problem that raises a troublesome condition and its resultant costs, and a solution that demands a change in action or understanding.[48]

Forecast themes and show relevance. Williams argued that besides local coherence, good writers pay attention to global coherence to help readers understand the entire prose without extra effort.[49] He also summarized how good writers create overall coherence. Good writers open each unit — the section, the subsection, and the whole — with a relatively short introductory segment to forecast the theme that follows, and then they present the unit’s point.[50] They always show the relevance of each unit and the whole.[51] They also organize all the units into a chronological, coordinate, or logical order that “best helps . . . readers understand them.”[52]

The Legal Writer will continue in the next edition of the Journal with Williams’s insights on writing gracefully.

[1] Joseph M. Williams & Joseph Bizup, Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace 2 (12th ed. 2016).

[2] Joseph M. Williams, Professor Emeritus of English and Linguistics, 1933–2008, UChicago News, Feb. 28, 2008, (last visited Jan. 6, 2020).

[3] In Memoriam: Joseph M. Williams, 1933–2008, Thomson Reuters, Spring, 2008, (last visited Jan. 6, 2020).

[4] Joseph Bizup, Boston University Arts & Sciences, (last visited Jan. 6, 2020).

[5] Williams, supra note 1, at 8.

[6] Id. at 3–8.

[7] Id. at 26.

[8] Id. at 10.

[9] Id. at 13.

[10] Id. at 11–12.

[11] Id. at 13–16.

[12] Id. at 16–18.

[13] Id. at 35.

[14] Id. at 29–30.

[15] Id. at 35.

[16] Id. at 35–36.

[17] Id. at 36.

[18] Id.

[19] Id. at 41.

[20] Id. at 44.

[21] Id.

[22] Id. at 41.

[23] Id. at 42.

[24] Id.

[25] Id.

[26] Id. at 45.

[27] Id.

[28] Id. at 53.

[29] Id. at 63.

[30] Id.

[31] Id.

[32] Id.

[33] Id. at 66.

[34] Id. at 65.

[35] Id. at 67.

[36] Id.

[37] Id. at 68.

[38] Id. at 69.

[39] Id.

[40] Id. at 70–72.

[41] Id. at 72.

[42] Id. at 75.

[43] Id. at 118.

[44] Id. at 95.

[45] Id.

[46] Id. at 106.

[47] Id. at 95.

[48] Id. at 96–101.

[49] Id. at 110.

[50] Id. at 110–13.

[51] Id. at 113–14.

[52] Id. at 114.

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