It’s the job of an appellate attorney to not only develop arguments that can win on appeal but to make sure that the appellate judges will actually read the brief from cover to cover rather than begin skipping pages to get to the end. However, the topic of making a brief as “readable” as possible is rarely discussed. My  goal, perhaps never reached, is to try and make my briefs as interesting and readable as a good non-fiction book. That’s what an appellate brief really is, a short non-fiction book. You might be surprised at the number of attorneys who have never thought of their appellate brief that way.


(Photo credit: mikeymckay)

One way you can make a brief easily readable is to master the ability to have a smooth transition through the various points you are trying to make with the reader. Transitions can be aided with the use of heading and subheadings, but in this post I’m going to briefly discuss the use of paragraph breaks to aid the transition from one thought to the next. Paragraph break transitions obviously represent a finer level of transition than subheadings and are more difficult to properly create. The rule, of course, is that when your writing begins to shift to a different thought or topic, you create a new paragraph.

One problem found in many briefs where the appellate rules set a length limit by use of a page limitation (such as with the Alabama appellate courts), is that attorneys attempt to stuff as much argument as possible into the pages allowed by ignoring the rule noted above and creating lengthy paragraphs. They see unused space in the final line of a paragraph as a waste of precious space and meld separate paragraphs together. But that is simply not a good idea. No one is capable of reading, understanding, and remembering the thoughts expressed on a standard printed page that has no paragraph breaks. The amount of text on the page is just too dense. Thus, in my own writing, I aim for at least three or four paragraph breaks and possibly even more, as discussed in this post about the technique of “pacing.” For readability, it is critical to create sufficient “white space” on each page of your brief.

One of the problems that some attorneys find in their own writing is that they have difficulty in locating the point within a lengthy paragraph to place a paragraph break. Because in good writing the transition points between ideas should be obvious, this indicates a problem that must be corrected. In some cases the problem is that the paragraph contains redundancies, fails to quickly advance the point being made, and is simply too long. The problem in these instances is not in finding the spot for a paragraph break; it’s in editing the paragraph to a shorter length.

In other instances where the spot for a paragraph break isn’t obvious, the problem is likely that the paragraph is poorly organized. Sometimes a sentence supporting a second point is written between sentences supporting the first point. Such a paragraph simply needs reorganization by moving around the sentences that compose the paragraph. Remember that each paragraph should have a single focus and thus when the focus shifts, a new paragraph is needed. I have found in editing of my own work that moving (cut and paste) a sentence from first part of the paragraph to the latter part, or vice versa, will help the flow of the argument and make the spot for the paragraph break more obvious.

The following comment on paragraph transitions by William Zinsser, the author of “On Writing Well,” is worth remembering:

Paragraphing is a subtle but important element in writing nonfiction articles and books  –  a road map constantly telling your reader how you have organized your ideas. Study good nonfiction writers to see how they do it. You’ll find that almost all of them think in paragraph units, not in sentence units. Each paragraph has its own integrity of content and structure.

Use these tips when editing your next brief to see if you can place between three and four paragraphs on each page to insert white space into the page and make your brief more readable. After all, a brief that’s not read carefully can’t win an appeal.

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