Make Words Count

A funny thing happens when lawyers set out to write articles or blog posts. Even though they’re told the required number of words, they write twice that number. Ironically, the worst offenders are those who refuse to read long email messages—or indeed anything longer than a page.

Brevity is not only the soul of wit, it’s also very effective in communication. Whether you’re summarizing your argument before a judge or writing a blog post about why it’s important to have a will, keep it short! One of McCaffery’s Maxims is that half as long is probably twice as good.

I once served on an award jury with a high-ranking official from Toyota who told us that executives at that global company were drilled in how to condense their communications to no more than one page. They could be proposing a radical new production method that would save the company millions, or a dynamic new product that would make the company millions—but they still had to do it in just one page.

So what does all this have to do with marketing? Well, the buzzword of the moment is content marketing—the distribution of relevant, useful information to a specific audience who might need your expertise. As I’ve said before (Content Marketing: More Smoke and Mirrors or a Real Opportunity?), lawyers often have to sell their services to clients who don’t know that they need such services. That’s why lawyers write articles, presentations, and blog posts about the legal tangles their clients can get into and how they can unravel them. Online, readers’ attention spans are notoriously short, especially now that breaking news comes in the 140-character posts of a Twitter feed. If you haven’t captured your readers in your opening sentence, you can kiss them goodbye. More about opening sentences in another post; in this one I want to focus on trimming the fat.

Having had a lengthy career as an editor, I am particularly sensitized to places where the editorial scalpel can be wielded to good effect. Opening phrases like ‘It is of interest to note that…’ are excised first. If it wasn’t of interest, would you (should you) be writing about it? Next to go are the groups of words where one will do, so “A majority of…” can usually shrink to “Most”; “At this point in time…” becomes “now” and “Based on the fact that…” can often be replaced with “because” (or omitted altogether).

The scalpel really flashes over what I call the “Jewish rabbi syndrome”. (Are there any other kinds of rabbis?) Perhaps these unnecessary qualifications are an effort to appear more precise, but such redundancies simply fatten up the content until it can’t be buttoned into the space or time allotted. We all do it: when was the last time you spoke of “a general consensus”, noted that something was “yellow in colour”, asked for just “the important essentials”, or complained of something happening “throughout the entire” performance?

I’d better stop here, before I become redundant, but I’d love to hear readers’ examples of ways they find to trim the verbal fat.


  1. Please be advised that my opinion as expressed herein is generally in accord and in fulsome agreement with the sentiments fully detailed and expounded in your blog as more particularly set out above.

  2. My vote for the word that should be excised from use – all use, not only legal use – is fulsome. I think the idea is that it sounds fuller than “full” but it means excessive, e.g., I have written a fulsome response to counsel.

    Thanks for the article!

    Linda Yip