Thoughts on Legal Writing from the Greatest of Them All: William Strunk Jr. & E.B. White—Part II

By Gerald Lebovits

Legal Writing from a Federal Judge’s Perspective_675

The Legal Writer continues its series on what we can learn from the great writing teachers. In this column, we continue our focus on William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White’s renowned little book, The Elements of Style. Part II of this two-part column addresses White’s core principles on effective style and Strunk’s recommendations on effective form and correcting commonly misused words and expressions.

FORM

Strunk gave a few principles on effective form. He explained that writers shouldn’t use an exclamation point to “emphasize simple sentences” but instead to use it only “after true exclamations or commands.”[1]

A writer who uses parentheses in a sentence containing an expression should punctuate “outside the last mark of parenthesis exactly as if the parenthetical expression were absent,”[2] He explained.

When using a colloquialism or slang word or phrase, Strunk told writers “simply use it” without quotation marks.[3]

Strunk argued that writers shouldn’t use a hyphen “between words that can better be written as one word.”[4] For example, “wild-life” should be written as “wildlife.”[5] Instead, Strunk told writers to use a hyphen when “two or more words are combined to form a compound adjective.”[6] Example: “She entered her boat in the round-the-island race.”[7]

Strunk warned writers that quotations introduced by that are “not enclosed in quotation marks.”[8] Example: “Keats declares that beauty is truth, truth beauty.”[9] The phrase after that isn’t enclosed in quotation marks; “it’s indirect discourse.”[10] But when a quotation is the “direct object of a verb,” it should be “preceded by a comma and enclosed in quotation marks,”[11] Strunk noted. Example: “Mark Twain says, ‘A classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.’”[12] When using titles of literary works, Strunk advised writers to use “italics with capitalized initials.”[13]

WORDS AND EXPRESSIONS COMMONLY MISUSED

Strunk disapproved of the vague and the misleading, both common characteristics of careless writing.

The following are words and expressions Strunk believed are commonly misused in the English language.

Strunk criticized the word utilize; he preferred use. He preferred all right to alright. He urged writers not to confuse disinterested for “not interested in” or “uninterested.”[14] Disinterested means impartial.[15] Farther and further shouldn’t be used interchangeably. The former is best used as a distance word; the latter, a time or quantity word.[16] He found the use of personally unnecessary. He disapproved of one of the most; “the formula is simply threadbare.”[17] He cautioned that starting a sentence with the pronoun this to refer to a preceding sentence or clause is misleading because “it can’t always carry the load . . . and may produce an imprecise statement.”[18]

To ensure definitive language and avoid vagueness, Strunk told writers to use very only when emphasis is warranted.[19] He warned that nor shouldn’t be used for or after negative expressions.[20] He expressed his disdain with using will instead of shall. He insisted that shall be used in the future tense when referring to the first person and will when referring to the second and third persons.[21] He urged writers to avoid using etc. at the end of a list introduced by such as, for example, or any similar expression.[22]

STYLE

“The approach of style is by way of plainness, simplicity, orderliness, sincerity.”[23]

White’s chapter on style draws from lessons he gained from writing. White noted that although The Elements of Style serves as a rulebook on proper English usage, style can’t be taught, because it “is something of a mystery.”[24] There’s no strict rule or “key that unlocks the door” to good writing or style.[25] That’s because a writer’s style “reveal[s] something of their spirits, their habits, their capacities, and their biases.”[26] Style reveals a writer’s identity. White insisted that his chapter on style not be perceived as “rules” but rather as “gentle reminders” about what he believes makes writing distinguished.

Place Yourself in the Background

White argued that a writer must “write in a way that draws the reader’s attention to the sense and substance of the writing.”[27] A writer shouldn’t focus on drawing attention “to the mood and temper of the author.” That’ll be uncovered if the writing is good.[28] With practice, White noted, writers will become better with “the use of language,” and “[one’s] style will emerge.”[29] Thus, to achieve effective style, a writer must “begin by affecting none — that is, place yourself in the background.”[30]

Write in a Way That Comes Naturally

White suggested that writers “[w]rite in a way that comes easily and naturally to you, using words and phrases that come readily to hand.”[31] But White warned that writers shouldn’t “assume that because you have acted naturally your product is without flaw.”[32]

Revise and Rewrite

White said that every writer’s work might be “in need of major surgery.”[33] Even the best writers might not produce a flawless piece of writing. A writer will always find serious flaws such as the organizational structure of the material, typographical errors, or grammatical issues.[34] The rewriting process might simply ask the writer to rearrange sections or abandon a piece of the material. This is no sign of weakness or defeat; it’s part of the writing process that every good writer experiences.[35] According to White, writers shouldn’t be “afraid to experiment with what [one] has written.” Experimenting improves writing.[36]

Don’t Overstate

“Overstatement is one of the common faults,”[37] White explained. Readers question the judgment of writers who overstate. “A single overstatement, wherever or however it occurs, diminishes the whole.”[38]

Avoid Qualifiers

White urged writers to avoid qualifiers like rather, very, little, or pretty. Or in Strunk’s words, “these are the leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words.”[39]

Avoid Fancy Words

“Do not be tempted by a twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center handy, ready, and able.”[40] White urged writers to “avoid the elaborate, the pretentious, the coy, and the cute.”[41] Using fancy words isn’t grammatically wrong, but White advised writers to let “one’s ear . . . be one’s guide.”[42] “[T]he ear not only guides us through difficult situations but also saves us from minor or major embarrassments of prose.”[43]

Don’t Take Shortcuts at the Cost of Clarity

Writers should avoid shortcuts such as initials for the names of an organization, company, government agency, or movement, “unless you are certain the initials will be readily understood.”[44] Instead, White recommended to “[w]rite things out.”[45] In most situations, it’s uncertain who your audience is, and it’s likely that your readers will be unfamiliar with what the initials are supposed to represent. And it wastes a reader’s time trying to ascertain the meaning of an initial. Therefore, according to White, “always start your article by writing out names in full and then when your readers have got their bearings to shorten them.”[46]

Be Clear

“[W]riting is communication, [so] clarity can only be a virtue.”[47] White recognized that obscurity might be more effective than clarity only if it serves a literary purpose. If writers choose obscurity over clarity, White urged them to “[b]e obscure clearly!”[48] White, however, perceived ambiguity as a “disturber of prose” and “destroyer of life, of hope.”[49] It distracts readers from the writer’s underlying message or leads readers to misinterpret the writer’s main objective, White explained. In all instances, White insisted, “when you say something, make sure you have said it.”[50] “Clarity, clarity, clarity.”[51]

IMPACT

Since its publication, The Elements of Style has been influential in outlining core principles of the English language. A New York Times book reviewer described it as “a splendid trophy for all who are interested in reading and writing.”[52] Its impact hasn’t been limited to English writers, however. For example, Senior Judge Rhesa H. Barksdale of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit requires her new law clerks to read The Elements of Style on the first day of their clerkship.[53] The late Judge Eugene H. Nickerson of the Eastern District of New York recommended The Elements of Style to lawyers who filed wordy complaints.[54] The United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit provides newly admitted lawyers a copy of The Elements of Style with their certificate of admission.[55] The Elements of Style has also been cited as binding authority in published opinions[56] and assigned as recommended material in first-year legal-writing curriculums in law schools around the country.[57]

Strunk and White have helped lawyers improve their writing style to achieve accuracy, brevity, and clarity and to ensure that “every word tells.” The little book is indispensable to lawyers who strive to master the art of persuasion.

Every lawyer should read and follow Strunk and White’s guidelines.

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 NYU law schools. For his research he thanks Bayron Flores Tapia (Fordham University School of Law), his judicial fellow.


[1] William Strunk Jr. & E.B. White, The Elements of Style 34 (4th ed. 2000).

[2] Id. at 36.

[3] Id. at 34.

[4] Id. at 35.

[5] Id.

[6] Id. at 34.

[7] Id. at 35.

[8] Id. at 37.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id. at 36.

[12] Id.

[13] Id. at 38.

[14] Id. at 44.

[15] Id.

[16] Id. at 46.

[17] Id. at 55.

[18] Id. at 61.

[19] Id. at 63.

[20] Id. at 53.

[21] Id. at 58.

[22] Id.

[23] Id. at 69.

[24] Id. at 67.

[25] Id. at 66.

[26] Id. at 67.

[27] Id. at 70.

[28] Id.

[29] Id.

[30] Id.

[31] Id.

[32] Id.

[33] Id. at 72.

[34] Id.

[35] Id.

[36] Id.

[37] Id. at 73.

[38] Id.

[39] Id.

[40] Id. at 76–77.

[41] Id. at 77.

[42] Id.

[43] Id. at 78.

[44] Id. at 80.

[45] Id.

[46] Id. at 81.

[47] Id. at 79.

[48] Id.

[49] Id.

[50] Id.

[51] Id.

[52] Sam Roberts, “The Elements of Style” Turns 50, N.Y. Times (Apr. 21, 2009), https://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/22/books/22elem.html.

[53] Christopher R. Green, Some Themes from Judge Rhesa H. Barksdale’s Published Opinions, 79 Miss. L.J. 261, 283 n.77 (2009).

[54] Quat v. Horowitz, 882 F. Supp. 1296, 1297 (E.D.N.Y. 1995).

[55] Stephen Senn, Serve Your Audience Strunk and White, and Legal Writing, 56 No. 5 DRIFTD 78 (2014).

[56] See, e.g., U.S. v. Bass, 404 U.S. 336, 340 n.6 (1971); U.S. v. Transocean Deepwater Drilling, Inc., 767 F.3d 485, 494 (5th Cir. 2014); U.S. v. Taylor, 258 F.3d 815, 819 (11th Cir. 2001).

[57] Legal Writing Program, http://law.nccu.edu/academics/legal-writing-program/ (last visited Jan. 13, 2020); An Introduction to American Legal Writing, https://www.bu.edu/law/current-students/llm-student-resources/legal-research-writing/ (last visited Jan. 13, 2020); Academic Support Program, https://law.utah.edu/students/academic-support-program/ (last visited Jan. 13, 2020); Lucia A. Silecchia, Designing and Teaching Advanced Legal Research and Writing Courses, 33 Duq. L. Rev. 203, 237 n.111 (1995).

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