Choose Action Verbs that Will Impact the Reader.
Posted on September 17, 2012
As has been discussed repeatedly in prior posts, your chances of winning an appeal increase if your brief is a “page turner,” one that draws in the reader and has a bit of drama. One way to accomplish that end is in word choice. In his classic book on non-fiction writing, On Writing Well, William Zinsser describes the importance of choosing verbs that provide imagery:
Many verbs carry in their imagery or in their sound a suggestion of what they mean: glitter, dazzle, twirl, beguile, scatter, swagger, poke, pamper, vex. Probably no other language has such a vast supply of verbs so bright with color. Don’t choose one that is dull or merely serviceable. Make active verbs activate your sentences, and avoid the kind that need an appended preposition to complete their work. Don’t set up a business that you can start or launch. Don’t say the president of the company stepped down. Did he resign? Did he retire? Did he get fired? Be precise. Use precise verbs.
Ross Guberman furthers this point in his excellent book on appellate brief writing, Point Made: How to Write Like the Nation’s Top Advocates. Guberman advises that lawyers include “zingers” in their brief, vivid verbs that add life and action to your writing.
Even as a lawyer beholden to forms and terms of art, you have many options on the wording front. Take verb-adverb combinations. Lawyers often write things like “In response to the press release, the stock price fell precipitously.” Not crack trial lawyer Joe Jamail. Here’s what he wrote in the Sunbeam/Al Dunlap securities litigation: “In response to the press release, the stock plunged.”
If use of colorful, descriptive verbs doesn’t come naturally to you, and I think that’s the case with most lawyers, don’t be too proud to break out a Thesaurus once in a while to add a zinger to your prose. I use a Roget’s Thesaurus on occasion, one I’ve had for more than twenty years.
Here are a few examples of sentences from briefs I’ve written that have well-chosen action verbs.
- Since 2001, [the plaintiff] worked for a time as a high school football coach in rural Alabama, but now toils in obscurity, entirely out of the coaching profession.
- [The defendant] deployed several tactics to distract others from the truth.
- [The plaintiff’s] life was forever fractured by [the defendant’s] misdeeds.
- [The defendant’s] motion for summary judgment is from an alternate universe; in this world the evidence demonstrates that he masterminded the plan to steal [the plaintiff’s] business.
- [The defendant] injected himself into the business relationship between [plaintiff] and [business].
- The deal was mangled as a result of [the defendant’s] incompetence.
The use of an action verb in your discussion will bring your writing alive to the reader. However, the key is a balanced approach that does not make it look forced and unnatural. As in all things, moderation is the key.