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February 2010
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April 2010

The importance of getting to the point immediately.

Wayne Schiess recently wrote an excellent post about strong openings for motions. His point (a good one) is that an argument is more likely to register in a busy judge’s brain if it’s stated immediately than if it’s buried on page 3.

Let me add this thought: The more quickly you get to the point, the more credible you will appear.

Think about how you react to others’ writing. When another writer delays getting to the point, don’t you start to suspect that the writer doesn’t have a point? Do you want your readers to suspect the same thing about you—even if just for half a minute? Of course not. 

The sooner you get to the point, the sooner the reader will realize that you have something worthwhile to say. Me, I like to make that impression immediately—no later than the end of the first paragraph.

So don’t waste your opening with blather such as “Now into court, through undersigned counsel, comes blah blah blah and files this, its blah blah blah. For reasons buried on page 5, the motion of blah blah blah should be ....” Instead, imagine that you have 20 seconds to tell the judge why you should win. Put what you’d say in those 20 seconds in your opening paragraph. For some good examples on how to do that, read Wayne’s post.

“Impact” is not only a noun, but also a verb.

The 2003 edition of Garner’s Modern American Usage says, “Impact has traditionally been only a noun. In recent years, however, it has undergone a semantic shift that has allowed it to act as a verb.” But according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the shift isn’t so recent. The OED includes a definition of impact as a verb, and give examples of this usage dating back to the 17th century.

But if you use impact as a verb, please use it well—otherwise the word will lose some of its, well, impact. My Oxford American Dictionary carries this advice, which I endorse:

As a verb, impact remains rather vague and rarely carries the noun’s original sense of forceful collision. Careful writers are advised to use more exact verbs that will leave their reader in no doubt about the intended meaning. In addition, since the use of impact is associated with business and commercial writing, it has a peripheral status of ‘jargon,’ which makes it doubly disliked.

An editorial against boilerplate in persuasive writing

One of the rules I follow when writing anything intended to persuade someone else is this: No boilerplate. Here’s why. When I read someone else’s writing, I can tell when I hit a patch of boilerplate—a page or two of generic writing on, say, the standard for granting summary judgment, that could have been (and probably was) cut and pasted from another summary-judgment brief. As a reader, what do you do when you hit a patch of boilerplate?

  1. Read more carefully, making sure you take in every word.
  2. Skim.
  3. Skip ahead, looking for something you haven’t read a hundred times before.

Me, I tend to do 2 or 3. I never do 1. My guess is that most readers react the same way to boilerplate.

The reader who is skimming or skipping is not, at that moment, being persuaded. And “not, at that moment, being persuaded” is the best possible result of skimming or skipping. It’s also possible that the reader is forming the impression that the writer doesn’t have anything worthwhile to say.