One aspect of brief writing that most lawyers don’t think about is paragraph and sentence length, and their effect on the reader. As a general rule, shorter paragraphs help keep the reader engaged with each sentence, while longer paragraphs tend to make the reader begin to skim, searching for the most pertinent information and disregarding the rest. However, a series of short paragraphs can make the writing seem choppy, bouncing from one idea to the next. The same generalities also apply to length of sentences. The answer in brief writing, as in writing a novel, is a blend of sentence and paragraph lengths. The variety provides energy to the writing. This may come naturally in your own brief writing. However, lawyers do seem to tend to greater length rather than brevity, which is one reason shorter paragraphs and sentences can add a stylistic “punch” to your brief.

In fiction writing, authors make use of what is called “pacing” to build to an important moment in the story. This technique is described in the writing guide, “The Elements of Fiction Writing: Theme & Strategy,” by Ronald Tobias:

The rhythm of action and character is controlled by the rhythm of your sentences. You can alter mood, increase or decrease tension, and pace the action by the number of words you put in a sentence. And because sentences create patterns, the cumulative effect of your sentences has a larger overall effect on the work itself. Short sentences are more dramatic; long sentences are calmer by nature and tend to be more explanatory or descriptive. If your writing a tense scene and use long sentences, you may be working against yourself.

So how does a lawyer use “pacing” in writing a legal brief? The technique of pacing from longer to shorter paragraphs with increased use of shorter sentences can be used in the latter part of each section of argument as you have moved past discussion of the facts and case law.

Indy 500 Pace Car (2008)

Indy 500 Pace Car (2008) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Use pacing to build to the climax of that section — the legal conclusion you want the court to reach. As Justice Ginsburg pointed out the value of a concise sentence in “Remarks on Appellate Advocacy,” 50 S.C.L.Rev. 567 (1999):

We simply don’t have time to ferret out one bright idea buried in too long a sentence.

Don’t make your judges work to find the important points you want to make. Lead them to those points with building interest. As Chief Justice Roberts once noted about what he thought makes a great appellate brief:

[Y]ou want it to be a little bit of a page turner, to have some sense of drama, some building up to the legal arguments.

To make your brief a “page turner,” try use of this fiction writing technique. It can add drama and interest to your brief.

Pacing works. It may help you be a winner.

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