On legal writing: Hemingway, not Faulkner

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As printed in Plaintiff Magazine, December 2011

Thunk! It arrived on my desk with the kind of weight that said, “I am a substantial pleading.” I looked up at my assistant, whose eyebrows and shoulders rose in a vaguely pitying, vaguely supportive way to remind me she was only the messenger. I looked down, flipped it open to the introduction and read the first sentence.

Or more specifically, tried to read it. Eight lines, multiple semicolons and more than a few hereins later, I stopped. And started again. And then again. While I could blame it on post-prandial lethargy, I was not that tired. The writing was simply terrible. It was one of those pleadings where half the battle was going to be articulating, in a simple fashion, what opposing counsel was asking for, before we ever got to why the argument was flawed.

Hemingway versus Faulkner

I’ve got nothing against Faulkner. He was a prolific writer who employed a stream of consciousness style, combined with complex and lengthy sentences. He received the Nobel Prize, which last time I looked was notably absent from my trophy case. But his style is not an easy read. It involves frequent stopping and returning to the beginning of a section to re-read it. Contrast that to Hemingway. Short sentences. Minimalist approach. Direct. A seasoned reader can devour more than a couple Hemingway novels in the same time it takes to take on one Faulkner. So what makes them different and how can we use the differences to draft convincing legal writing?

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