Legal writing workshop highlights “text-speak”

Anna Giubileo, Staff Reporter

In recent years, the move to a more casual, conversational tone in writing has been gaining traction. One reason for this change is the increase in “text-speak” in everyday life, a trend which has begun to spill over into legal writing as well.

In her workshop this past weekend entitled “Plain and Precise Legal Prose,” Terri Mester, who has worked full-time in the Case Western Reserve University Department of English since 2002, aimed to teach students of a variety of ways to adapt their writing in the face of changing stylistic demands.

Third-year student Ethan Moroh was excited to attend the workshop because he thought the material would be interesting and helpful for various parts of his life. “It’s really important to stay current with your writing, and I really like [Mester], so I knew the workshop would be a lot of fun,” he explained.

Mester has given this workshop and other versions of it to audiences of a variety of backgrounds and academic interests, from business to psychology to English. Not only does this speak to her skill at making the material relevant for the many different types of people, but it shows the cross-academic connections and importance of what she is teaching.

She began her talk boldly: “Lawyers tend to write in a convoluted, opaque way,” adding, “it is a very special, tradition-bound language.”

But despite centuries of these “tortuous” structuring of writing, recent decades have found a transition into a “plain language movement.” Rather than crafting complex sentences which come across as elitist and exclusive, written in passive voice and packed with extraneous words, the new aim is to be accessible to the standard person.

Appeasing the room full of skeptics, Mester immediately said, “It is not dumbing your writing down, it is making your writing more readable.”

The presentation demonstrated that if a point is buried within antiquated writing styles, the modern person struggles to understand it, which is the opposite of the writer’s intention. After Mester set the stage as to why one should transition their writing style, she gave tips on how to do so and what to avoid.

First, she suggested that if there is a way to convey a written argument in fewer words, do so. Concise sentences, Mester explained, allow for clearer arguments and paths of logic to aid the reader in understanding the point. Additionally, she said to put the subject of the sentence before the action, also for the sake of readability. Barring a few exceptions, Mester believes that sentences should be in the active voice to add to the flow of the writing.

Another major point Mester touched upon was the “seven word rule.” If a writer has not reached a verb by the seventh word of a sentence, Mester holds that the writer should rewrite it to be more concise.

All in all, the workshop concluded that writing has taken a turn towards a clearer, more approachable structure which can be read through quickly and comprehended. Mester has worked to teach this change to as many students as possible.