The Brilliance of Brevity

It’s really a shame I did not meet my longtime mentor (with whom I still practice) before I started college or law school. It would have made life much easier for legions of professors who had to suffer through my unfocused and sometimes wordy writing.

Of course, because one of my majors was Literature-Writing, I was exposed pretty early to writers who really made an art of brevity, from Beckett to Hemingway to Didion to Amy Hempel (regardless what readers think of the literary gifts of these writers, they all practiced a less-is-more philosophy in their writing). And I recognized and appreciated their care and economy in constructing lean sentences that seemed to express a kind of nihilistic void through an absence of language.

But it was not until after I started practicing law and had a mentor who took the time to work with me one-on-one to . . . er . . . adjust my writing style to make it more palatable and persuasive, that I came to understand and appreciate the beauty of brevity. Among his teaching methods, the most powerful involved using a felt-tip pen to excise any (I mean any) word that was not absolutely essential to my letter or brief.

I’ve come to think that there are two reasons crisp, clear writing that gets quickly to the point should be encouraged for lawyers, and neither have anything to do with expressing any “kind of nihilistic void.” First, judges and clerks simply don’t have–and won’t take–extra time to sift through a Faulknerian* experiment to grasp our point. I’m told they often do not get past our introduction or opening paragraphs. If our opponent has better mastered the art of writing in a clear, tight style, it presents no mystery that his or her points, even if not better, will be more seriously considered because they were easier for the judge or clerk to read and grasp.

An equally important reason to strive for brevity is that saying more with less tends to force us to really focus our thinking. A first draft might contain lots of “throat-clearing,” or excess verbage as we struggle to figure out what we’re trying to say. Like the carving of a sculpture, however, revision into subsequent drafts should refine and clarify our point. We often see that what began as one exceptionally verbose argument is better expressed, and more persuasive, if broken into two or three separate points.

In Lawyering, James Freund makes this point about brevity:

“One of the grim realities of our profession is that lawyers tend to be terribly long-winded. . . . The most common enemy of conciseness is the lawyer’s reluctance to sort out the material from the insignificant. One hopes this doesn’t evidence his inability to do so; a lawyer who can’t tell the one from the other suffers from the most serious of shortcomings in his chosen profession. If he can distinguish significance but chooses not to do so — out of laziness, or a misconception of its importance, or bad judgment in his utilization of time — he is not beyond redemption; but the adverse effect on the reader is precisely the same as if he totally lacked the capacity.

I find conciseness in a written communication to be quite difficult to achieve at the outset. One doesn’t start out to write a concise piece. Until all the thoughts are in front of you, deciding what’s material and what isn’t can be a tricky task. Crispness is usually the product of a late draft in your rewriting process. As you re-read your draft memo, try to decide which of the thoughts are essential to the analysis, which are collateral to it (but still of some significance), and which are essentially irrelevant or immaterial. This last category should be deleted, as tending to interfere with the flow of thought. Matters that are collateral/relevant, however, should be retained without throwing the reader off the main track.” (50-52) (Emphasis in original.)

One thing I’ve observed about my own quest for brevity is that, after several years of practice, I have begun to find it easier to write more concisely from the very first draft. Anything serious still seems to require some revision (not to mention careful, careful, careful proofreading!), but because I approach the project with an expectation that it will ultimately be crisp and tight, my initial draft seems to reflect this plan.

*I happen to love Faulkner. But reading his best work, like the opening pages of Absalom, Absalom, can be really tough going. I doubt that even Faulkner would expect a judge to accompany him on that journey.

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