Writing Consultants: Training with Jane Griesdorf

 


Hurry Slowly: Writing Skills for Lawyers
Confronting the Challenges of Writing   On Grammar and Its Discontents
Email

The Importance of Being Eloquent   Toronto Star

HURRY SLOWLY: WRITING SKILLS for LAWYERS for Lawyers Weekly by Jane Griesdorf

"Hurry slowly," writes Italo Calvino in Six Memos for the Next Millennium.  "A writer's work has to take account of many rhythms: Vulcan's and Mercury's, a message of urgency obtained by dint of patient and meticulous adjustments and an intuition so instantaneous that, when formulated, it acquires the finality of something that could never have been otherwise."

I love this quotation by Calvino because it opens up a world of possibilities for writers, especially lawyers. It sanctions having fun with writing: allowing yourself to use flourishes where necessary, to be straightforward and concise when it would be better to do so, and to trust the good judgement honed as a lawyer to know just what voice will work for each particular client or situation.

Lawyers are professionals who require language as their most important tool. They write with it, argue with it, win or lose by it. A highly educated group, most lawyers are good writers who have been writing for all of their professional lives. The more seasoned ones (older!) will probably have had the advantage of a fairly rigorous background in the principles of English grammar and syntax. The younger ones, for the most part, may not have had this advantage but will have learned through practice.

So why do so many lawyers sign up for the writing courses offered by the Writing Consultants (
http://www.writingconsultants.com)? I believe it is because they are ready to change an age-old trend. For centuries lawyers have donned, with their robes, a cloak of discourse that is "lawyerly." Certain that statements such as "It is our recommendation to you as regards the course of action that you can probably pursue that all money is drawn out of the trust fund by the executors of the said fund" are essential when giving their professional opinions, they often lose touch with the simple mortals who read this language.

These "mortals" include layman like me who approach legal documents with much trepidation. By very definition, any time I would require a lawyer would probably be a stressful time. And research shows (yes, you can begin a sentence with a coordinant conjunction for emphasis) that as soon as readers are stressed, their reading level drops to about a grade six! Other mortals include judges, who beg us to instruct lawyers that they, too, appreciate accessible, plain language for even such a complex document as a factum. Lawyers, themselves, admit that in the course of a busy day, they do not have the energy to decode lawyerly language.

The word "decode" is critical. Stanley Fish, maverick academic that he might be, writes that "there is no single way of reading, only 'ways of reading' that are extensions of community perspectives [giving the reader] the central role in the production of meaning." That's scary theory, for it means that the reader's decoding is up for grabs.

We have found that a quick course is best for lawyers. We are certain that lawyers will reduce their unbillable hours by reducing the reviewing time of their own work and the work of their associates, admin staff, clerks, and students. A one-or two-hour module is usually enough to illustrate the importance of writing from a reader-focused philosophy. We start with what we know readers appreciate: 
    •  a narrative line
    •  focus before detail
    •  an up-front conclusion (point-first writing)
    •  "eye candy" such as readable fonts, good margins, plenty of white space   

We illustrate the Readability or "Fog" Index, showing how the sentence above, "It is our recommendation to you as regards the course of action you can probably pursue that all money is drawn out of the trust fund by the executors of the said fund," registers well over the acceptable Flesch Grade Level of "12" (the Globe is 10 or under). A rewrite in plain language reduces the passage to an acceptable level of 9 or 10, "We recommend that it is probably best for the executors to draw all money out of the trust fund."

No matter what the length of a document might be, strong paragraphs and focused sentences are the backbone of dynamic writing. Here's a checklist lawyers can use to test their writing skills at the paragraph and sentence level:

1.  Do the paragraphs include
            •  a control sentence that relates to your main point (thesis, argument, opinion)?
            •  support details to make your ideas focused and persuasive?
            •  transition words to give coherence to your thoughts?

2.  Are the sentences an appropriate length (about 12 to 20 words) and varied in pattern?
   
3.  Is legalese avoided wherever possible?

4.  Are most sentences constructed in the active voice?   

5.  Are tabulated (bulleted) lists parallel in their design?

6.  Has the document been thoroughly (unequivocally) checked for spelling, grammar, and punctuation?

In the millennium, our jobs have become more demanding of our communication abilities. Law firms who invest in writing seminars report not only improved skills, but also heightened staff morale. More confident in their writing, speaking, and overall ability to articulate well, lawyers and staff develop the personal confidence and self-reliance to match their professional expertise!


Confronting the Everyday Challenges of Everyday Writing by Jane Griesdorf 

In my more jaded moments, I like to quip that my first teaching career as a high school teacher guaranteed me a clientele for my second career as a writing consultant! What really happened was that following the school boards' de-emphasis on grammar and composition in the 80s and 90s, few students learned anything about writing for the business or professional world. Class time that might have been available for writing was filled with literature classes or forays into "creative" work. Thus the basic principles of clear, coherent, and concise writing - not to mention correct grammar, punctuation, and pleasing style - were never addressed.

The policy-makers somehow hoped that basic rudiments would seep into students' writing by exposure to good literature. But this miracle did not always happen and we teachers thus graduated almost two decades of students who did not have the experience necessary to write well in their chosen professions. Indeed, even some of you may find that though writing is essential to your business day, it is not one of your favourite tasks. Little wonder, when you are faced with the obfuscation so prevalent in business writing today.

Several years ago, an engineer friend approached me with a problem. He feared that the work of his staff (graduate engineers and MBAs) was just ambiguous enough to make him subject to libel if one of their memos were to be introduced in court. My friend, who specialized in quality control in the consumer industry, documented his findings on all aspects of an operation, including safety. What he worried about most was an accident that his staff might have foreseen and forestalled had they reported the possibilities clearly enough. He wanted me to teach them this clarity.

And thus the Writing Consultants was born. We specialize in custom-designed writing seminars for consultants, engineers, accountants, lawyers, and support staff. We believe that writing, though often a seemingly formidable task, is a skill that can be learned. The courses are designed to ease writers into the writing assignment and to provide guidelines that will allow them to produce well-organized, unified, coherent, and correctly edited documents. Our approach is almost entirely reader-centered. We know, for example, that it is rarely the writer who controls the interpretation of his or her writing. Though as writers we would hope to be in charge, once the word has left our finger tips or has been uttered by our voices, it is the reader of that text who interprets its meaning. That's rather scary stuff to consider!

So what can we do to decrease the gap between reader and writer?

When approaching a writing task, you might begin by considering earnestly the following:
 

  • Who will be reading this document? Don't be naive here. Many pieces of writing are forwarded to readers you might never anticipate. This is especially true of email!
  • What does your reader want to know?
  • What does your reader already know?
  • How will your reader be using the information? 
  • How will it affect your reader? Readers have emotional responses to writing. Think of how you might respond to a government tax letterhead in your daily mail!
  • How does your reader feel about you?
  • What is your reader's attention span?
Most people begin with the background of a topic. It's an easy way to start, but not always the best way since the one thing readers often know is the history or background of an issue. What they are interested in is the new information. If you begin with the old material, readers will skim, and that opens your text to misreading.

Here's a good trick to try to ensure that your beginning has substance. Begin with these seven words: "Today I want to tell you that . . .." Finish off the sentence and you will be left with a strong purpose statement, a statement that will allow both you and your reader to know immediately what you are going to focus upon. Make sure that you begin each ensuing paragraph with a similarly clear topic sentence and you will have a coherent piece of writing. Massage the sentence a little if it sounds too abrupt. Here's an example:
 

Today I want to tell you that because of a strike at the factory, we will be three weeks late with your delivery >>> Because of a strike at the factory, we will be three weeks late with your delivery >>> I regret to tell you that because of a strike at the factory, we will be three weeks late with your delivery. 
Notice that I am not stressing what type of document you are creating. I am often asked to teach a specific genre to an organization. One firm might want to learn how to write winning proposals; another might want to focus on reports or letters. But no matter whether you are writing memos, email, letters, proposals, reports, journal articles, or speeches, good writing begins at the sentence and paragraph level. Only the template or the length changes according to the document. Even when the tone of a particular piece of writing demands more or less formality, it still boils down to audience awareness and clearly focused sentences and paragraphs.

Consider the time an editor or reader might spend decoding this sentence:

Receipt of this notice prompted me to make new inquiries, making use of Internet technology which had not previously been available, in a new attempt to locate the company profile. 
Conversely, consider the reading ease if the sentence had been written like this:
When I received this notice, I tried again to locate the company profile. This time I used Internet technology previously unavailable. 
Here's another:
Turning now to the next question to be discussed, there is in regard to the subject of customer development activities one basic principle when attempting to formulate a way of approaching decisions as to how to regain client accounts lost or diminished over the last five-year period that we have not addressed up to the current and present time. (59 words) 
And here's its rewrite:
The next question concerns client development. We have not yet addressed one important principle: deciding how to regain client accounts lost or diminished over the last five years. (28 words) 
Many writers today underestimate the importance of good formatting. In fact, often a change in the amount of white space, the addition of some spiffy point-form tabulation, or scanning headings to act as a "roadmap" through the document can do wonders. Here, for instance is a passage that is difficult to access:
The performance returns in all three summaries are calculated as of December 31 in each year; assume all distributions made by the Fund are reinvested in additional units without charge; and are not reduced by any redemption charges, optional charges or income taxes payable by you. 
Here's a rewrite in point form that is somewhat easier to read, but still rather heavy looking:
The performance returns in all three summaries are: 
  • calculated as of December 31 in each year; 
  • assume all distributions made by the Fund are reinvested in additional units, without charge; and 
  • are not reduced by any redemption charges, optional charges or income taxes payable by you. 
Here's the final rewrite, lightened up as befits millennial writing:
The performance returns in all three instances are 
  • calculated as of December 3 in each year 
  • assume all distributions made by the Group are reinvested in additional shares, without charge 
  • are not reduced by any redemption fees, optional charges, or income taxes payable by the investor
Many of my course participants express their frustration over not having learned how to organize, write, or edit their written material. Because they have no background in the grammar or mechanics of our language, they are wholly reliant on whether or not something "sounds right." But having been exposed to so much poor grammar in their daily lives, what "sounds right" is often wrong! In any given group of ten, for instance, at least eight will choose "I" as the correct pronoun case to follow the preposition "between" in a construction such as "between you and I."

But because they do not know what a "preposition" is, or what "case" means, they cannot understand that a preposition requires the objective case of the pronoun and the resulting correction to "between you and me."

Grammar has a bad reputation. For years students have found it difficult, boring, and not hip. The Grammar Brush-Up and Grammar Booster courses offered by the Writing Consultants bring grammar to an adult level that is stimulating, enlightening, and fun. Participants are amazed at how much they can learn or relearn in a three-hour period.

In the millennium, our jobs have become more demanding of our time and our communication abilities. Research work can require difficult reporting as we cull through, select, and synthesize the material. Frequently, we do not even have the luxury of proofreading or editing this work as thoroughly as we would like. But the steps to good writing and editing can be learned and the process will become more natural and automatic with practice and time.

Organizations who have invested in writing seminars report not only increased office productivity, but also heightened staff morale. Employees are more confident in their writing, speaking, and overall ability to articulate well. They gain the personal confidence and self reliance to match their professional expertise!


On Grammar and Its Discontents  by Jane Griesdorf

In the 15 years that I’ve been operating the Writing Consultants, I never cease to be astounded at how the participants in my courses yearn for grammar! I usually finish each session with a “Grammar Tease,” and if there’s time, a “Grammar Brush-Up.” Inevitably the course evaluations request more grammar. Not one to say no to a new gig, I’ll return to the client with a “Grammar Booster” course.

Though as children most of my course participants had disliked the subject, now that they are in the work world they are anxious to catch up with what they missed. They tell me that their work, both written and oral, is undermined by their fear that it is error-ridden. They want the skills to write and speak with confidence.

All that most students remember of their grammar classes is their English teachers drawing lines and scribbles over the board in a desperate attempt to show them how to parse a sentence. But this happened when students were young and unable to understand the fine discipline that grammar entails. English grammar is a sophisticated discourse; its rules are far more nuanced and fluid than teachers conveyed or than young students were able to grasp.
   
Understanding grammar, that is understanding how our language works, is essential to good communication. Taking the time to learn more than the basics pays dividends in our facility to write sentences with variation, rhythm, and aplomb. Proofreading becomes easier because we are able to spot errors and correct them with certainty. We are able to risk eccentric sentence structures because we have the confidence to know that they are grammatically correct even if somewhat stylistically off-beat.
   
There’s a bonus, too: once we understand the rules, we are able to break some! Both H.W. Fowler and Joseph Williams list as “superstition” or “mythology” many of the rules we cling to. Here are a few:

1.  Don’t split infinitives.

2.  Don’t start a sentence with a coordinate conjunction such as “And,” “But,” or “So.”

3.  Don’t start a sentence with “Because.”

4.  Never end a sentence with a preposition.

5.  Don’t use “which” in a restrictive clause

So next time you’re anxious about such rules, try not to fret. Pick up a grammar book, go on the web, or ask a colleague; you’ll probably be pleasantly surprised at the liberty you can have stylistically when unhampered by “superstitious” rules. Understanding the grammar that allows you to use these structures is the key.
   
Here’s a quick test. Each sentence has a grammar error (or two). Most of us will be able to find and correct the error. The real test, however, is to be able to explain the rule underlying the correction. Try your luck and email me for the answers: janegriesdorf@writingconsultants.com

1.    Everyone was asked to turn in their results.

2.    The group of protesters are approaching.

3.    There is no one as experienced as her.

4.    I feel sick, however I will still try the test to see if I make less errors this time.

5.    Fortunately, Audrey and myself can do it.

6.    Irregardless of what you think, none of the performers were trained.

7.    It was me who you spoke to.

8.    Neither John nor Brenda know the answer.

9.    Because it was her fault, she felt badly about the accident.

10.  He is a real fast runner.


Email by Jane Griesdorf

Email is one of the many challenges facing us in our daily writing. Because of its speed and broadcasting ability, it is fundamentally different from paper-based communication. More conversational-like, it can easily become sloppy and ambiguous. Thus, though the advantages of a virtual workplace are many, and essential, we must make sure that our ability to communicate well remains a high priority within this framework.

Email is not as rich a method of communication as a face-to-face or telephone conversation. Your correspondent may not be able to tell if you are serious or kidding, frustrated or euphoric. Sarcasm, for example, is particularly dangerous in email dialogue. While the medium itself would seem to encourage writers to disclose personal information, tell jokes, pass on gossip, and pitch incomplete ideas, you should always be wary of doing so. Courts have consistently ruled that workplace email is not the property of the sender but rather the property of whoever owns the system. Anything you say via email might be used against you!

Here are some tips I found on one of the many OWLs (On-Line Writing Labs) available to students of writing. You can connect to these OWLs via my website through "Links." There is lots of interesting material to browse through on those sites, so do have fun!

Context: In a conversation, there is usually some form of shared context. With email, however, you can't assume anything about your correspondent's location, time, frame of mind, health, affluence, age, or gender. Be sure, therefore, that you give some context.

Short Paragraphs: Frequently the mail will be read in a document window with scrollbars. This makes it harder visually to track long paragraphs. Consider breaking up your paragraphs to only a few sentences apiece.

Line Length: A good rule of thumb is to keep your lines under 75 characters long. Why 75 and not 80? You must be sure to leave a little room for the indentation or quote marks your correspondents might want if they are going to quote a piece of your email in their reply.

Terser Prose: Try to keep everything on one "page." In most cases, this means twenty-five lines of text.

FYI: If you are offering non-urgent information that requires no response from the other person, prefacing the subject line with "FYI" (For Your Information) is not a bad idea. For time-critical messages, typing "URGENT" is a good idea.

And finally, the following important principles of effective writing apply as much to email as to any other form of written correspondence. Be certain always that your work is well organized, natural, courteous, concise, clear, correct and jargon-free. Your readers will be able to access your messages easily and look forward to hearing from you regularly!


 

The Importance of Being Eloquent by Jane Teng, 3rd Year Co-op Student

The room was already packed and it was only ten to nine. I managed to find a spot in the last row. Silently, I surveyed the classroom. I spotted her right away, Jane Griesdorf, the instructor. Standing in a corner, she was handing out some purple binders and packages. "Suave" and "imperturbable"; these two words surfaced in my mind. This usually means that she will be a hard marker. I was right. The class began and she said: "I am the high school English teacher whom you thought you would never see again!" I thought of Mrs. Ancans, whom my essays could never satisfy. That was my first day of MGTC36 Management Communications.

Being the brave soul that I am, I stayed, along with some thirty-odd others. We wrote e-mails, reports and proposals; we stood up in front of the entire class and gave presentations; we endured the merciless critiquing of our papers, and we improved. Did you know that there is "trend" in English writing? Well, the "as per our discussion" is passé, passive voice is ugly, and "in these tough economic times" is too much of a cliché. Instead, "as we discussed" is in vogue, active voice is hot, and "defog" those long sentences if you want to be a trendy writer. As if all that was not enough, we were painfully reminded of the most horrible part of the GMAT: grammar! A terrifying word, yes, good practice for those aptitude tests though. Every Tuesday morning we took another step towards becoming the confidant, articulate, and sophisticated professionals we were destined to be.

The reality is that almost every job today emphasizes written and oral communication skills. For students who are aware of the fact that their skills need to be improved or those who just want to add some pizzazz to their writing, this is the ideal course. Of course, it also helps to have an instructor who has been teaching English for nearly all her life: more than fifteen years in high school and another twelve years teaching professional adults as a consultant. Ms. Griesdorf's approach is practical, realistic and job-oriented. Upon completion of this course, students are expected to speak and write with style in a more focused and grammatically correct manner.

And I began to say: "This is she."



 

THE STAR: January 20, 2001 IN PURSUANCE OF PLAIN ENGLISH FORTHWITH
by Bob Aaron

It's time for lawyers and contracts to use plain English

One of the worst examples of outdated legal writing style today is the document most familiar to the home-buying public - the standard form "Agreement of Purchase and Sale" used by the Toronto Real Estate Board and the Ontario Real Estate Association. It must have been written by lawyers because no real estate agent or broker could ever write this badly.

What's wrong with this type of legal writing today? Recently, I met with Jane Griesdorf, owner of "The Writing Consultants" (http://www.writingconsultants.com). A former English teacher, she devotes her career now to teaching lawyers and other professionals to write clearly and effectively. She tells lawyers to avoid the use of "lawyerisms," which create a cloud of fog around the meaning of the document.

Several weeks ago, Griesdorf presented a program called "Write This Way" to a sold-out seminar at the Law Society of Upper Canada. Here are just a few of the worst examples of lawyer writing she cited:

  • Use of meaningless doubles, such as any and all, first and foremost, full and complete.
  • Redundant modifiers, such as completely finish, past history, final outcome, terrible tragedy, period of time, end result.
  • Throat clearing - unnecessary words such as basically, actually, virtually and doubtlessly.
  • Overly long sentences and paragraphs.
  • Heavy language with mouthfuls of unnecessary words, such as pursuant to, at your earliest convenience, in all probability.
  • Stacking numerous prepositional phrases in the same sentence
  • Archaic vocabulary - words nobody uses anymore, except lawyers.
By these guidelines, the standard sale agreement is a textbook example of how not to write a contract. Its longest sentence, for example, is 207 words, followed in the same paragraph with another sentence of a mere 140 words. How a lay person, never mind a lawyer, is supposed to understand this awful prose is beyond me.
Purchaser's deposits in this contract are not merely attached - they are "submitted herewith."

If the offer is not accepted within a time limit, it becomes "null and void." Not just null. Not just void. But null and void.

The parties "acknowledge and confirm" broker representation, presumably because one of these words alone is just not enough.

The purchaser's deposit is not held in trust until completion. It is held in trust "pending" completion.

One paragraph begins with the words, "it is understood that. . ." The real estate associations must be afraid that removal of those totally unnecessary words will mean that the parties to the agreement do not understand what follows.

At the bottom of the agreement, the purchasers and vendors cannot simply sign the agreement. Breaking numerous rules of writing clarity, the document's turgid prose : "In witness whereof I have hereunto set my 'hand and seal.'"

The style of the standard condominium resale agreement is somewhat better, if only because its longest sentence is a mere 138 words instead of 207. It repeats many of the style problems with the freehold offer, but goes on to use many others.

If the condominium board must consent to the sale, for example, the vendor must apply "forthwith." Immediately, or even right away, is probably not soon enough. Deadlines in the agreement may be amended by lawyers "who may be specifically authorized in that regard."

Builder agreements for new homes and condominiums are many times longer than the resale forms used by the real estate boards. Typically, they are much worse in terms of writing clarity and simplicity of terminology. In other fields of law, ordinary contracts written by lawyers often begin "This indenture witnesseth. . ." Leases are written "in pursuance of" the Tenant Protection Act.

It is not just contracts that are filled with "legaldegook" (a combination of legalese and gobbledegook). In their daily correspondence, many lawyers still persist in writing like they think lawyers are supposed to write.

The real estate industry, and those responsible for the creation of its contracts, should be leaders in the area of making consumer contracts user-friendly and readable in plain, everyday language. It's time to scrap the old contracts and use plain English to say the same thing.

Bob Aaron is a Toronto real estate lawyer