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

By Gerald Lebovits


In the May Journal, The Legal Writer continues its series on what we can learn from the great teachers of writing. In the April issue of the Journal, we addressed the late Joseph M. Williams’s advice on clarity in his authoritative work, Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace, now co-authored by Boston University Professor Joseph Bizup. In this second part of this two-part column, we focus on Williams’s advice on writing gracefully.


“The effect of elegance follows from the principles of clarity and coherence, deftly applied and adapted.”1

Be concise. Concision is the first feature of graceful writing. Williams asked writers to “use just enough words to say what you mean.”2 “[N]ot too much, not too little, but just right.”3 To turn wordy sentences into concise ones, he advised writers to “delete meaningless words,”4 “delete doubled words,”5 “delete what readers can infer,”6 “replace a phrase with a word,”7 “change negatives to affirmatives,”8 and “delete adjectives and adverbs.”9

Williams also railed against metadiscourse. He defined “metadiscourse” as “language that refers to the writer’s intentions, directions to the reader, and the structure of the text.”10 In his view, writers must limit their metadiscourse; metadiscourse buries their ideas.11 Metadiscourse that attributes ideas to a source, announces topics, or describes structure such as have been observed, this section introduces, and firstly can be eliminated without any loss of meaning.12 But Williams also reminded writers that they shouldn’t go too far in cutting wordiness. Concision is good; terseness isn’t.13

Start a sentence with its point. The shapely structure of sentences features graceful writing.14 Williams’s first piece of advice on forming a shapely sentence is to state your point upfront.15 Williams suggested beginning sentences “with something short and direct that frames the more complex information that follows.”16 Doing that allows writers to offer readers context upfront to help readers manage the coming complexity more easily.17 To make a point near the sentence’s beginning, writers must shorten openings and start the sentence quickly. Williams proposed two rules for that purpose. One is to “get to the subject quickly.”18 Long introductory phrases and clauses frustrate readers. Avoid them.19 The other is to “get to the verb and object quickly.”20 That requires writers not only to avoid long, abstract subjects, but also to avoid interruptions between the subject-verb and the verb-object connections.21

Control sprawling endings. Williams noted that a sentence, even one well started, won’t be graceful if it sprawls.22 A sentence sprawls if it keeps tacking clauses or phrases of the same kind onto another. Williams suggested four things to cure sentence sprawl.23

• Reduce relative clauses to phrases by deleting who/that/which and is/was, and then adjust the remaining verb properly, such as by adding -ing.24 A sprawling sentence might read like this: “No scientific advance is more exciting than genetic engineering, which is a new way of manipulating the elemental structural units of life itself, which are the genes and chromosomes that tell our cells how to reproduce to become the parts that constitute our bodies”.25 Rewrite it: “Of the many areas of science important to our future, few are more promising than genetic engineering, which is a new way of manipulating . . . , which are the genes and chromosomes that tell . . . .”26

• “Turn subordinate clauses into independent sentences.”27 Rewrite the above sprawling sentence: “Many areas of science are important to our future, but few are more promising than genetic engineering. It is a new way of manipulating the elemental structural units of life itself, the genes and chromosomes that tell . . . .”28

• “Extend a sentence with a resumptive, summative, or free modifier.”29

› A resumptive modifier is a modifier that repeats a key word and then adds descriptive details about that word. Example: “Since mature writers often use resumptive modifiers to extend a line of thought, we need a word to name what I am about to do in this sentence, a sentence that I could have ended at that comma, but extended to show you how resumptive modifiers work.”30

› A summative modifier is a modifier that summarizes the substance of the main clause going before. Example: “Economic changes have reduced the region’s population growth to less than zero, a demographic event that will have serious social implications.”31

› A free modifier is a modifier that comments on the subject of the closest verb. Example: “Free modifiers resemble resumptive and summative modifiers, letting you extend the line of a sentence while avoiding a train of ungainly phrases and clauses.”32

• Extend a sentence with well-formed coordination after verbs.33 Williams defined coordination as the “foundation of a gracefully shaped sentence.”34 He recommended paralleling the elements “both in grammar and in sense”35 and ordering them “from shorter to longer, from simpler to more complex.”36 Example: “No civilization has experienced such rapid alterations in their spiritual and mental lives and in the material conditions of daily existence.”37

Construct balance and symmetry. In Williams’s opinion, “the most striking feature of elegant prose is balanced sentence structure,”38 one of its parts “echoing another in sound, rhythm, structure, and meaning.”39 To balance one part of a sentence against another, writers can coordinate elements grammatically with conjunctions like and, but, (n)or, both X and Y, not only X but also Y, (n)either X (n)or Y.40 They can also balance phrases and clauses that aren’t grammatically coordinate.41

Williams illustrated non-coordinated balance with this example: “Were I trading scholarly principles for financial security, I would not be writing short books on minor subjects for small audiences.”42 Here, a subordinate clause “Were I trading” balances the main clause “I would not be writing”; the object of the subordinate clause “scholarly principles” balances the object in the prepositional phrase “financial security”; and the object in the main clause “short books” balances objects in two prepositional phrases: “minor subjects and small audiences.”43

Williams encouraged writers to build up balance patterns. It’s hard work, but it’s worth the effort. Balance patterns “don’t just shape your thinking; they generate it.”44 Writers trying to create a balanced unit must find an element echoing a part that’s already in their minds.45

End sentences with emphasis. Williams stressed that how writers end a sentence determines whether the sentence has rhythm and grace.46 Good writers end a sentence with words that deserve stress, all to fulfill their readers’ expectations to find new, long, and complex information toward the end of a sentence.47 Williams offered six devices to help writers shift emphatic words to the right and toward the end of a sentence, where they’ll get particular emphasis.

• There shift. Use “there be” constructions to shift a subject to the right to emphasize it.48 Example: “There are several syntactic devices that let you manage where in a sentence you locate units of new information.”49

• Passive shift. Use a passive verb to “flip a subject and object to get old and new information in the right order.”50 Example: “Some claim that aspects of behavior that we think are learned are in fact influenced by our genes. Our genes, for example, seem to determine. . . .”51

• What shift. Use a what-clause to shift a part of the sentence to the right to emphasize it.52 Example: “What we need is a monetary policy that would end fluctuations in money supply, unemployment, and inflation.”53

• It shift. Start a sentence with an “it” and move a subject consisting of a long noun clause to the right.54 Example: “It once seemed inevitable that oil prices would be set by OPEC.”55

• Not only X, but (also) Y (as well). The but will emphasize the last element of the pair. Example: “We must not only clarify these issues but also develop trust.”56

• Pronoun substitution and ellipsis. Use a pronoun or ellipsis instead of repeating a word at the end of a sentence to avoid a flat end caused by repeated words.57 Example: “A sentence will seem to end flatly if at its end you use a word that you used just a few words before, because when you repeat that word, your voice drops. Instead of repeating the noun, use a pronoun. The reader will at least hear emphasis on the word just before it.”58 Williams also illustrated five categories of emphatic words that can create strength in a sentence’s stress position, namely, its end.

• Weighty words. Williams weighed nominalizations the heaviest, followed by other nouns, adjectives, adverbs, and prepositions.59

• Of + Weighty words. “The light of (followed by a lighter a or the) quickens the rhythm of a sentence just before the stress of the climactic monosyllable.”60

• Echoing salience. A sentence ends with special emphasis “when a stressed word or phrase balances the sound or meaning of an earlier one.”61

• Chiasmus. “Chiasmus balances elements in two parts of a sentence, but the second part reverses the order of the elements in the first part.”62 Example: “A concise style can improve not only our own thinking but the understanding of our readers.”63

• Suspension. Instead of always starting a sentence with a short clause, sometimes writers can “open a sentence with a series of parallel and coordinated phrases and clauses”64 — a suspension — to “heighten a sense of climax.”65 But don’t overuse this device. “The less it’s used, the bigger its bang.”66

Clarity trumps elegance. Williams admitted that there’s no rule for writing elegantly.67 Compared to clarity and coherence, the qualities of elegance are more varied and harder to master.68 Nevertheless, he summarized three characteristics of an elegant passage: “the simplicity of characters as subjects and actions as verbs; the complexity of balanced syntax, meaning, sound, and rhythm, and the emphasis of artfully stressed endings.”69 He also believed that “for a sentence or passage to be elegant, it must first be clear and coherent.”70 Thus, he urged writers to start by learning how to write clearly and mastering the major principles of clear writing, such as “characters as subjects, actions as verbs, old before new, short before long, and topic then stress.”71 Then, to approach elegance, writers must “read those who write elegantly and, through that apprenticeship, develop an elegant style of your own.”72


“Write to others as you would have others write to you.”73

At the end of Style, Williams emphasized the importance of writing ethically. He argued that writers owe readers a duty to write precise and nuanced prose. He outlined the core principle of ethical writing: Writers write honestly when they would willingly experience what their readers do when they read what the writers have written.74 And then, they create “a style that is no simpler than our ideas require but also no more difficult than it has to be.”75 Williams also explained that unclear writing can be the result of unintended obscurity or intentional misdirection. Unintended obscurity is an innocent shortfall.76 Writers can correct their innocently unclear writing by using by the skills Williams shared in his lessons on clarity. Intended misdirection, however, is an intentional deception to disguise writers’ own interests and knowingly deflect readers’ feelings. That might raise a serious ethical issue.77


Unlike clarity, “elegant writing is a matter not of rules but of technique, taste, and talent.”78 But Williams believed that “techniques can be learned and practiced, and taste and talent can be educated and exercised.”79 Thus, emulate, rewrite, and rewrite again. You’ll find your way.

The Legal Writer will continue its series on what we can learn from the great writing teachers — lawyers and non-lawyers.

Gerald Lebovits ([email protected]), an acting Supreme Court justice in Manhattan, is an adjunct at Columbia, Fordham, and New York University law schools. For her research he thanks Jingru Li (NYU School of Law), his judicial fellow.

1. Joseph M. Williams & Joseph Bizup, Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace 174 (12th ed. 2016).

2. Id. at 123.

3. Id. at 135.

4. Id. at 123.

5. Id.

6. Id. at 124.

7. Id. at 125.

8. Id. at 126.

9. Id. at 127.

10. Id. at 128.

11. Id.

12. Id. at 129.

13. Id. at 132.

14. Id. at 137-38.

15. Id. at 138.

16. Id. at 139.

17. Id.

18. Id. at 140.

19. Id.

20. Id. at 141.

21. Id. at 141-43.

22. Id. at 144.

23. Id. at 145.

24. Id.

25. Id. at 144.

26. Id. at 145.

27. Id.

28. Id.

29. Id. at 158.

30. Id. at 146.

31. Id. at 147.

32. Id.

33. Id. at 148.

34. Id.

35. Id. at 159.

36. Id. at 151.

37. Id. at 159.

38. Id. at 164.

39. Id. at 161.

40. Id.

41. Id. at 162.

42. Id. at 163.

43. Id.

44. Id.

45. Id. at 163-64.

46. Id. at 164.

47. Id.

48. Id. at 84.

49. Id.

50. Id.

51. Id.

52. Id. at 85.

53. Id.

54. Id.

55. Id.

56. Id.

57. Id.

58. Id.

59. Id. at 164.

60. Id. at 165.

61. Id. at 166.

62. Id.

63. Id.

64. Id. at 167.

65. Id.

66. Id.

67. Id. at 161.

68. Id. at 174.

69. Id.

70Id. at 171.

71. Id.

72. Id. at 173.

73Id. at 177.

74. Id.

75. Id.

76. Id. at 177-78.

77. Id. at 177-81.

78. Id. at 161.

79. Id.

Six diverse people sitting holding signs
gradient circle (purple) gradient circle (green)


My NYSBA Account

My NYSBA Account