United States: The Appellate Record Blog: Writing For The Hard Wired English Brain

This sentence hard to read you find?

Why?

Easy the words be. Agreement amongst verb and subject there is. What problems have you?

In the wrong order the words are? But right is which order? And wrong should this be why? 

To find out, and to become a much better writer, read this book- Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace by Joseph M. Williams.

I am borrowing heavily (HEAVILY) from this fantastic little volume in to prepare a presentation on Clarity and Grace for the upcoming seminar on Exceptional Legal Writing presented by the Texas Bar on April 26.

If your heart can stand it, watch the presentation live at Texas Law Center. If that might overwhelm you, watch the webcast from your computer. 

After the jump, a smidgeon of what Williams has taught me, and a mini-preview of what I hope to pass on at the seminar.

Our native language hard wires our brains.

How hard? In cultures without a future tense, people don't treat the future as abstract. They don't disassociate their present and future selves. They tend to make their current selves do what their future selves need, much more than societies that have a future tense.

The best example is that they have better savings rates. They are hard wired to treat today and tomorrow as basically the same. Whereas, in America, where we sing about Tomorrow and Go West Young Man, we borrow money our future selves cannot afford to repay and we eat calories our future selves will regret. Because the future is waaaaaaaayyyyy out there some day.  

Hard wiring impacts writing too. Readers' brains are hard wired to expect certain information presented in their language to be in a certain order. Meet those expectations and the reader will move through your prose smoothly and easily. Violate those expectations, and the reader has to work for it. Make the reader work and you increase the risk that you will lose the reader altogether.

Violate a reader's hard-wired expectations and you waste your most precious resource: reader attention.

For me, Williams' most valuable contributions are identifying the expectations of the English reader and giving us the tools to make our prose meet those expectations.

In the first part of this post, my gnarly sentences did not work because I violated one of the most basic expectations for the English brain. English readers long for that "click" in the transition between subject and verb, right near the beginning of the sentence. I butchered that expectation by making you wait.

In a variety of ways, Lawyers violate that expectation all the time:

  • Making verbs into subjects
  • Picking lousy subjects that don't do anything
  • Making readers wade through clauses before they get to a subject
  • Separating the subject and the verb with still further clauses

Many more foibles infect us. And many more will be fixed at the seminar. But know this:

If things in the wrong order you put, hard will your prose be to read and like Yoda will you sound.

Don't sound like Yoda. Find out what the right order is.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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