Improve your legal writing with these 5 tips from George Orwell

George Orwell
George Orwell by Morgaine https://flic.kr/p/6ydHmp

In 1946 George Orwell wrote an essay, “Politics and the English Language”, criticising the general collapse in the English language. His central theme was that written English had become full of bad habits. Getting rid of those bad habits makes the writer to think more clearly.

The original essay talks about politics and how better writing will lead to political regeneration. The principles, examples and tips from 1946 apply just as much to lawyers today. These tips from George Orwell can help you improve your legal writing. Communication is the key. Follow the advice to write better and clearer:

  • Emails;
  • Letters;
  • Articles;
  • Blog posts;
  • Skeleton arguments;
  • Witness statements;
  • Contracts;
  • Pleadings; or
  • Judgements.

You should read the whole essay. You can find it here. But for now these five tips will get you started:

  • Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print
  • Never use a long word when a short one will do
  • If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out
  • Never use the passive when you can use the active
  • Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent

Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print

A good metaphor makes for clear writing by evoking a visual image. Its fine to invent new metaphors and to use ones that have become ordinary words (e.g. iron resolution). But worn-out metaphors have lost all their power. Some examples to avoid are:

  • Ring the changes on
  • Toe the line
  • Play into the hands of
  • Fishing in troubles waters

Never use a long word when a short one will do

Lots of lawyers think that people will be impressed by long words and complicated phrases. They are wrong. Complex language shows a lack of thought and a lack of communication skills. Use plain English and gain respect.

George Orwell doesn’t like any of these words: phenomenon, element, individual (as noun), objective, categorical, effective, virtual, basic, primary, promote, constitute, exhibit, exploit, utilise, eliminate and liquidate.

If a word is on the Plain English Campaign’s A to Z of Alternative Words then change it.

If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out

Once you have written something, go through it and cross out every word that you can. Every one.

Most redundant adverbs (-ly words) can go. Get rid of: clearly, extremely, definitely, truly, very and really. They don’t add anything.

Compare:

This is clearly true.

This is true.

They mean the same thing. The word “clearly” adds nothing.

Shorten phrases when you can

Don’t say this:

In my opinion it is not an unjustifiable assumption that than to say

Say this:

I think.

By the way George really hates the “not un- formation”. He wants to laugh it out of existence.

One can cure oneself of the not un- formation by memorising this sentence: A not unblack dog was chasing a not unsmall rabbit across a not ungreen field.

Never use the passive when you can use the active

Using the active form makes a sentence clearer. The act of transforming a sentence from the passive to the active makes you think about what you want to say. Here are some examples:

Passive – The letter was faxed to court by me.

Active – I faxed the letter to court.

Passive – An order was made by the judge.

Active – The judge made an order.

Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent

We can add legal jargon to this list. It’s fine to use technical jargon to other lawyers. Sometimes you can’t avoid using a legal phrase. If you have to use technical language make sure that you explain it.

The Plain English Campaign have an A to Z Guide to Legal Phrases on their website.

Any examples?

Do you have any examples of horrendous legal writing. Leave them in the comments section below or send a tweet to @stephenoldhamuk

About the author

Stephen Oldham
Stephen Oldham

Stephen Oldham is a specialist driving solicitor specialising in defending drink driving, speeding and other motoring offences in England and Wales.

You can find out more about Stephen at this page and contact him here.

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