Friday, February 22, 2008

Usage Tip #6

I'm on the lookout for a better title for these Usage Tip posts. Any suggestions?

This week everyone has gotten back their motions for summary judgment, and perhaps you are beginning work on your next assignment. To help you (and myself) over the next few weeks of brief writing, the Usage Tips between now and March 16th will focus on elementary principles of composition.

Choose a suitable design and hold to it.
A basic structural design underlies every kind of writing.... Writing, to be effective, must closely follow the thoughts of the writer, but not necessarily in the order in which those thoughts occur. This calls for a scheme of procedure. In some cases, the best design is no design, as with a love letter, which is simply an outpouring, or with a casual essay, which is a ramble. But in most cases, planning must be a deliberate prelude to writing. The first principle of composition, therefore, is to foresee or determine the shape of what is to come and pursue that shape.... The more clearly the writer perceives the shape, the better are the chances of success.

Make the paragraph the unit of composition.
As long as it holds together, a paragraph may be of any length--a single, short sentence or a passage of great duration.... Ordinarily, a subject requires division into topics, each of which should be dealt with in a paragraph. The object of treating each topic in a paragraph by itself is, of course, to aid the reader. The beginning of each paragraph is a signal that a new step in the development of the subject has been reached.... In general, remember that paragraphing calls for a good eye as well as a logical mind. Enormous blocks of print look formidable to readers, who are often reluctant to tackle them. Therefore, breaking long paragraphs in two, even if it is not necessary to do so for sense, meaning, or logical development, is often a visual help. But remember, too, that firing off many short paragraphs in quick succession can be distracting. Paragraph breaks used only for show read like the writing of commerce or of display advertising. Moderation and a sense of order should be the main considerations in paragraphing.

Omit needless words.
Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short, or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell. Many expressions in common use violate this principle.
  • "the question as to whether" should be "whether" or "the question whether"
  • "there is no doubt but that" should be "no doubt" or "doubtless"
  • "used for fuel purposes" should be "used for fuel"
  • "in a hasty manner" should be "hastily"
  • "this is a subject that" should be "this subject"
  • "the reason why is that" should be "because"

"The fact that" is an especially debilitating expression. It should be revised out of every sentence in which it occurs. ("I was unaware of the fact that" could be "I was unaware that")

"Who is," "which was," and the like are often superfluous. ("His cousin, who is a member of the same firm" could be "His cousin, a member of the same firm")

[Since lawyers are by nature wordy, we'll do more with omitting needless words next week. Stay tuned!]

William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White, The Elements of Style, 2000, Longman Publishers, pp.15-24.

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