United States: The Four Cs Of Writing .

(How to improve written work)

Diamond shoppers use four Cs to select a diamond. I propose four Cs, clarity, cut, color, and carrot (a homonym of carat), to improve written work.


Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan recently said that "the most important thing in a brief is clarity." Clarity, whether in a brief, a contract, or any other communication, is key to getting one's message across. And clarity requires work. It requires a writer to analyze the words to ensure that they say what the writer means and nothing else.

Ambiguity, the presence of more than one reasonable meaning, is clarity's greatest enemy. Why? Because a writer's intended message may be present while another meaning may be lurking. And the law, in the case of contracts, punishes ambiguous writing by construing ambiguities against the drafter. Some actual headlines provide examples that illustrate the problem of ambiguity.

  • "Kids make nutritious snacks"
  • "Miners refuse to work after death"
  • "Prostitutes appeal to Pope"
  • "Red tape holds up new bridge"
  • "Squad helps dog bite victim"

Writers often unnecessarily separate the subject of a modifier from the modifier. This common error can interrupt the flow of the sentence and, at times, introduce ambiguity. Consider the following example: "To qualify for the job, the candidate must submit a petition with more than 99 signatures, provide a list of planned actions, and pass the qualification test no more than 90 days after submitting his application."

Must the candidate submit his or her petition no more than 90 days after submitting his or her application? Or does the 90-day requirement apply only to passing the qualification test? Using the "nearest antecedent" rule, someone could argue that the 90-day requirement applies only to passing the qualification test. But, rather than make your readers work to discern your meaning, rewrite the sentence to make clear your intent. Write either, "To qualify for the job, the candidate, no more than 90 days after submitting his or her application, must submit a petition with more than 99 signatures, provide a list of planned actions, and pass the qualification test," or write, "To qualify for the job, the candidate must submit a petition with more than 99 signatures, provide a list of planned actions, and, no more than 90 days after submitting his or her application, pass the qualification test."

Clarity also is a byproduct of organization. To produce a clear message, prepare an outline of the points to be made. Then build from your outline to complete your written product.


The Soviet writer Isaak Babel wrote, "Your language becomes clear and strong not when you can no longer add, but when you can no longer take away." Unlike the cut of a diamond, which provides the shape of the stone, this cut reminds us to remove all that is unnecessary, whether excess verbiage, unneeded punctuation, or anything else that detracts from the message.

Cut the passive voice: "The ball was thrown by me." Use the active: "I threw the ball." Never use 10 words to say what five will accomplish. Charles Caleb Colton said, "The writer does the most who gives his reader the most knowledge, and takes from him the least time." When writing to persuade, consider cutting adjectives and adverbs. Facts, not characterizations, are most likely to convince your reader.

A friend recently asked me whether there is a difference between a lawyer and an attorney. The question arose when he read the following description of a question on the state ballot in Maryland: "Although many Orphans' Court judges are attorneys, they are not required to be lawyers or members of the state bar." A clearer message would have been conveyed with seven fewer words: "Although many Orphans' Court judges are attorneys, they are not required to be."

Other things that detract from your message that you should cut include misspellings, subject-verb disagreements, which/that misuse, and style inconsistencies. Use an Oxford comma (aka serial comma) or not as you wish; but do not use the Oxford comma some of the time and not others. Avoid starting a sentence with "however"; instead, use commas to make the "however" a parenthetical in the sentence. Heaven forbid, do not say "me" when you should say "I" or vice versa.

Cut what Mark Herrmann, the author of The Curmudgeon's Guide to Practicing Law, refers to as alphabet soup. Instead of using acronyms such as UCATA or SPCA, use words that make sense as shorthand that will not require a reader to search back through the text for the first appearance of the word now unrecognizable in its shortened form.

Cut stilted language and legalese. Why say "assuming arguendo" when you can say "for the sake of argument"? Why write "party of the first part" when "plaintiff" or "Acme Bank" will do? Professor James McElhaney, formerly of Case Western Reserve University School of Law, writes that we have to "reprogram ourselves" after law school; we need to relearn the language of our ancestors: plain, simple language.


Add color to your writing to make it livelier for your reader. I offer two suggestions for adding color. First, rather than dryly reciting facts, tell a story. Second, inject humor if and when appropriate. Readers relate to stories. A dry recitation of facts, on the other hand, will put them to sleep.

Years ago, I filed in Maryland federal court a motion for a change of venue. My opponent cited numerous cases for propositions that would leave the case where it had been filed, but they all missed the mark. The controlling case, Forest v. United States, almost guaranteed that the federal judge would grant my motion to transfer. My brief concluded with humor; it stated, "Plaintiff fails to see the Forest for the trees." I do not know whether the federal judge got a chuckle from my brief, but the case was promptly transferred to New York.


The carrot is our homonym to carat. Rather than a stone's size or weight, it is our enticement to our readers to continue reading. Lord Denning, a British jurist, describes the importance of enticing your readers:

No matter how sound your reasoning, if it is presented in a dull and turgid setting, your hearers—or your readers— will turn aside. They will not stop to listen. They will flick over the pages. But if it is presented in a lively and attractive setting, they will sit up and take notice. They will listen as if spellbound. They will read you with engrossment.

How, then, do we make our writing lively and attractive? Helen Sword, in Stylish Academic Writing, tells us to "always use clear, precise language, even when expressing complex ideas; engage your reader's attention through examples, illustrations, and anecdotes; avoid opaque jargon; vary your vocabulary, sentence length, and frames of reference; favor active verbs and concrete nouns; write with conviction, passion, and verve." Employ the four Cs in your writing to make your writing sparkle like a fine diamond.

Originally published in DRI's For the Defense, February 2013


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