Legal Writing Practice of Law

13 Tips for Creating a Clear Train of Thought

One of the essential qualities of all legal writing, clarity, is created by a clear train of thought. No matter how clear your sentences are, readers will not feel that they add up to a clear message unless they can see how the sentences hang together. It is your job as a writer to bring the reader along with you on your train of thought.

Here are 13 tips for creating a clear train of thought in your writing:

  1. Orient the reader at the start of a document, section, paragraph, and sentence. Prepare the reader for what lies ahead.
  2. In headings, assert your point, using the key terms or details you rely on in the text.
  3. In the first sentence after the heading, use its key terms.
  4. Repeat key terms in subheadings and topic sentences.
  5. Develop points in a logical sequence that is obvious or stated.
  6. Begin a new sentence where the last sentence left off.
  7. Stay “on message.” No detours (colorful but non-essential information).
  8. Lead with the point (don’t build up to the point) and then support the point.
  9. Use the same word or phrase for the same thought.
  10. In conclusions to sections, refer to the details analyzed above.
  11. Avoid acronyms. Use a key word instead.
  12. In court documents, put citations at the sentence’s end (to ease the court’s research). In office memos and client documents, put citations in footnotes (to ease the reader’s burden).
  13. In cases with many parties or witnesses, periodically restate the identity or role of a party or witness.

Following these tips will keep your readers on track to reaching the destination where your train of thought is headed.

These tips are from Daniel U. Smith, who teaches CEB’s very popular program Smith on Persuasive Legal Writing, available On Demand. For more useful writing tips from Mr. Smith, check out our blog post on writing for the busy judge.

© The Regents of the University of California, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

3 replies on “13 Tips for Creating a Clear Train of Thought”

These are great rules. As a mediator, having read probably 4,000 briefs in my career, I can tell you that the first point is by far the most important: Orient the reader. Too many attorneys jump into their story mid-stream, forgetting that the mediator doesn’t yet know the big picture. It helps if you paint us a landscape first, and then tell us what is wrong about it.

The other tip I would offer about mediation briefs in particular is that they can often be filled with repetition. Mediation briefs are less formal and don’t have to restate legal theories in each section to cover all bases, like a motion might.

Happy writing, all!

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