Free legal-writing advice by George Gopen

If you have not read The Sense of Structure by George Gopen, you should. His lessons on structuring your sentences and paragraphs are invaluable. Recently he has written a series of articles for the ABA’ Litigation magazine. And George has been kind enough to share those articles on his web site. If you have not read his book, or if you have read it but need a refresher, check them out.


Nobody’s perfect. Not even Strunk & White

Here is a sentence from Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style, 76–77 (4th ed. 2000):

Do not be tempted by a twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center handy, ready and able.

The problem: in the same book, page 2, the authors advise writers, “In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last.” Following their own advice, the authors should have put a comma after “ready.”

If the authors were alive today, they might quote Ralph Waldo Emerson: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” Or they might shrug their shoulders and say, “Typos happen.”

Hat tip to my colleague Louis LaCour for spotting this.


Johnny Cash demonstrates powerful writing

Would you like your writing to be as powerful as Johnny Cash’s lyrics? Here is a good place to start: stick with short words. As an example, here are the lyrics to Folsom Prison Blues.  Most words are just one syllable. Just one three-syllable word.

I hear the train a comin’
(1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 2)

It’s rolling round the bend
(1, 2, 1, 1, 1)

And I ain’t seen the sunshine since I don't know when,
(1, 1, 1, 1, 2, 1, 1, 1, 1)

I’m stuck in Folsom prison, and time keeps draggin’ on
(1, 1, 1, 2, 2, 1, 1, 1, 2, 1)

But that train keeps a rollin’ on down to San Antone...
(1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 2, 1, 1, 1, 1, 2)

When I was just a baby my mama told me. Son,
(1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 1, 1)

Always be a good boy, don't ever play with guns.
(2, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 2, 1, 1, 1)

But I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die
(1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 2. 1, 1, 1, 1, 1)

When I hear that whistle blowing, I hang my head and cry...
(1, 1, 1, 1, 2, 2, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1)

I bet there’s rich folks eating in a fancy dining car
(1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 2, 1, 1, 2, 2, 1)

They’re probably drinkin’ coffee and smoking big cigars.
(1, 3, 2, 2, 2, 1, 2, 1, 2)

Well I know I had it coming, I know I can’t be free
(1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 2, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1)

But those people keep a movin’
(1, 1, 2, 1, 1, 2)

And that’s what tortures me...
(1, 1, 1, 2, 1)

Well if they freed me from this prison,
(1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 2)

If that railroad train was mine
(1, 1, 2, 1, 1, 1)

I bet I’d move it on a little farther down the line
(1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 2, 2, 1, 1, 1)

Far from Folsom prison, that’s where I want to stay
(1, 1, 2, 2, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1)

And I’d let that lonesome whistle blow my blues away....
(1, 1, 1, 1, 2, 2, 1, 1, 1, 2)


Why we are blind to our own typos

Here is an interesting article by Nick Stockton explaining why it’s so hard to catch our own typos. He ends with a hint that most of us already know: when proofreading, print a hard copy and edit by hand.

One of my own tricks when doing that is to use a ruler, placing it just under the line of text I’m examining. Every time I do that, I catch about a half-dozen typos and other mistakes.