Legal Writing Checklist
By Jim Covington, Illinois State Bar Association
With the Illinois General Assembly in recess, ISBA Director of Legislative Affairs Jim Covington provides a helpful legal writing checklist. The full checklist is also available below the video.
(1) Front-load your information by starting with a meaningful synopsis. Readers process information much easier if they know where they are going.
(2) Use descriptive headings as signposts to guide your reader followed by bite-size chunks of text. Your sentences should average about 20 words per sentence because big chunks of text intimidate readers.
(3) Use active voice so that the actor is doing the action instead of receiving it. We talk in active voice. For example, “I hit a home run” instead of “a home run was hit by me.” Active voice creates shorter, tighter sentences. Try to keep your passive sentences under 20%.
(4) Use conversational word order. The natural flow of an English sentence is subject-verb-object. Don’t interrupt this flow by separating your subject from your verb with a long dependent clause. Don’t get bogged down starting with a long dependent clause. Ask yourself, “Who is doing what to whom?”
(5) Less is more. No judge ever finished reading a concise brief or motion and wished it were longer.
(6) Scan through the entire document. Can your reader understand what your point is by the document’s organization alone?
(7) Read it aloud to yourself. Does it flow or is it clunky? Mistakes will jump off the page if you read it aloud. If it sounds good, it is good.
(8) Are your transitions OK? Do you lose your reader by failing to transition from each sentence and paragraph to the next?
(9) Does each word, sentence, and paragraph do real work that is not duplicative? If not, delete or condense.
(10) Ask somebody else to review it. Don’t personalize the comments or criticism; just evaluate them to see if they improve your work. It’s not about you at this stage of the process; it’s about making your work more clear and understandable for readers.