>> Reviewing the Rules of Good Writing

Reviewing the Rules of Good Writing

By Judge Mark P. Painter

This series began running in March 2002 in Ohio Lawyers Weekly. It was then picked up by Lawyers Weekly USA and various bar association magazines. Some readers have been exposed to the whole series, but many may have missed the first dozen or so columns where I set out the rules from my book The Legal Writer: 40 Rules for Legal Writing.

I thought it might be helpful to recap a bit.

Recapping Important Rules

Write short sentences. Average sentence length should be no more than 18 words. You may sometimes go up to 35 words if your sentence is very well constructed. But keep the average at 18 or below. Rule 16

  • Write short paragraphs – usually three or four sentences. But never write a paragraph that fills more than about two-thirds of a double-spaced page. Short paragraphs give the reader time to digest the material before moving on. Rule 8

  • Give the readers context before detail. All writing should be front-loaded – tell your readers what’s coming, so they know why the facts you recite are important. Rule 2

  • Cut down on passive voice and nominalization. Passive voice takes the actor – and the action – out of a sentence. We seldom speak in the passive voice. Closely related is nominalization – turning a perfectly good verb into a noun. Passive voice should be limited to 18 percent of your document. Rule 17

  • Use headings that convey information. You must break up long text into smaller bites. And why not convey information while doing so? Rather than using the generic heading Facts, write a more informative The Fire and the Aftermath. Rule 7

  • Cut the couplets and triplets. Using two words for one goes back to 1066 – we just forgot to quit for the last 939 years. Favor the English word over the Norman French – Rest rather than remainder; sell rather than convey. Rule 21

  • Use, but fear, spellcheck. It’s a good tool, but using it blindly can substitute constipation for constitution. And be very careful in writing about the penal system. Rule 15

  • Use readability statistics. Set your spellcheck program to tell you the words per sentence, percent passive voice, and grade level. It’s under Options. Rule 35

  • Cut out most exact dates. Exact dates are clutter, and a signal to the reader, remember this date, it’s important. But most dates are not important. Use in June, or later, or next month to keep the chronological flow. Rule 5

  • Don’t use parenthetical numericals. I still see there was one (1) defendant and three (3) plaintiffs. Never use parenthetical numericals. Never. Rule 6

  • Use parties’ names, not procedural titles. Unless you represented Prince during a certain period, all your clients have names. Use the parties’ names, not their procedural titles. Who wants to be a plaintiff-appellant? Rule 27

  • Use a readable font. Georgia or Palatino are good choices. Times New Roman is OK, but is a bit too condensed, and the periods and commas are too small. Rule 9

  • Citations go in footnotes – but only citations – don’t use talking footnotes. Readability soars when the jumble of letters and numbers are removed from our paragraphs. Rules 12 and 13


    I always show the readability scores for the column. Statistics for this column: 11 words per sentence, 6 percent passive voice, grade level 8.5.

    Questions on usage, style or grammar are welcome. I don’t claim to be a grammarian, but I have access to many sources. Please send questions, comments, or particularly good or bad examples of legal writing to jugpainteraol.com.


Mark Painter has served as a judge on the Ohio First District Court of Appeals for 10 years, after 13 years on the Hamilton County Municipal Court. He has served as an Adjunct Professor at the University of Cincinnati College of Law since 1990. Judge Painter is the author of five books, including The Legal Writer: 40 Rules for the Art of Legal Writing. The third edition o that book was published in May.  It is available from http://books.lawyersweekly.com. Judge Painter has given dozens of seminars on legal writing, and will give his six-hour legal writing seminar in September in Raleigh, Charlotte, Nashville, and Memhis.  Contact him through his website www.judgepainter.org.