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Words matter. A lawyer and a federal judge in Philadelphia recently reminded us all of just how much. After winning a $354,000 decision for a former Philadelphia police officer, attorney Brian M. Puricelli petitioned the court to recover his fees. Magistrate Judge Jacob P. Hart agreed that Puricelli was owed payment for his services, but reduced the amount due him by $30,000 because Puricelli’s petition was rife with typographical errors and misspellings. Hart declared it disrespectful to the court and, as a penalty, he slashed in half the portion of Puricelli’s fees that covered the time he spent drafting his legal papers. Words and their meanings are important. The ability to write with clarity and precision is a skill without which attorneys cannot succeed. A law firm’s writing is its ambassador; its reputation hangs in the balance with every e-mail and letter, every brief, report and memo. Like it or not, each practicing lawyer is also a professional writer. Words on the page are often the only evidence of his or her character and intelligence. They convey the full weight of the author’s personality. Clumsy or inarticulate writing chips away at the reader’s trust. That trust is sacred; it is the single most important asset an attorney has, and it is well worth protecting. But how? Large firms can afford a dedicated editorial staff, something that’s out of reach for most small firms and solos. Attorneys very often have to police their own work — a difficult task, but one that becomes easier with the proper tools. Are writers born or made? Many people think that the ability to write well is something one is born with — or without. The fact is, people write badly for many different reasons, most of which have nothing at all to do with innate talent. Effective writing — which succinctly states the writer’s case, persuades the reader and spurs him to action — is a learned skill. On-site writing workshops designed to target a firm’s specific needs can be extremely useful: Once lawyers grasp the basics, they are in a better position to improve client relations, help acquire new business and make more persuasive arguments. The benefits of good, effective writing can be seen on the bottom line. Patience and practice are much of what’s required. There are, though, a few things one can do to see an immediate improvement: � Make clear writing a top-level priority.Too many professionals use pretentious, inflated language to make their ideas seem more impressive or to defend them from question. It rarely fools anyone, and serves only to frustrate everyone involved. Being understood the first time through is the most important element of writing for a business audience. It’s not the reader’s job to decipher work written to confuse. Fear plays a key role in perpetuating a long-winded and confusing style. Since clear writing is by definition easy to understand, it is also difficult to hide behind. It forces the writer to take ownership of his or her ideas, a daunting prospect in a cutthroat corporate environment where people may want to avoid blame down the line. � Understand that “correct” writing is not always “good” writing.Writing is often more art than science. Blind adherence to rules creates writers more concerned with surviving the experience than they are with clarity and precision. It’s good to know the rules; it’s better to know when to break them. � Good writing is rewriting.Professional writers know that no one gets it right the first time around, so take a page out of their book and allow time for a revision. Figure out what you want to say in the first draft; worry about how best to say it in the drafts that follow. Lawyers often think that deadline pressures won’t allow this kind of approach, but it actually saves time in the long run. Their writing gains clarity, and embarrassing errors are held to a minimum. � Know what to look for as you edit.Good editors are made, not born. Just because one person in the firm happens to write well does not mean that he or she is equipped to critique the work of others. Poor criticism can actually hurt a firm twice: The writer walks away frustrated and unsure of how to improve, while the editor grows impatient with work that isn’t improving. Outside help can be especially valuable here. Help your colleagues spend their time — and yours — wisely by learning to recognize red flags, and to know what specific steps to take to improve written work. � Above all, respect the reader.Know your point, and get to it quickly. Respect the reader’s time, and make sure your point is easy to find and understand. Think about what you want to say before you start to put words to paper. Remember that the reader most often owes you nothing more than a single cursory read through what you’ve written; make sure one reading is all that he or she will need. No one appreciates confusing, careless prose, and there’s nothing quite like it to poison a reader’s good will. Good writing is important. Puricelli, the Philadelphia lawyer who so angered the judge with his writing, won his client’s case but lost the judge’s respect (in addition to some of his fees). True or not, embarrassing malapropisms and careless errors made it seem as though he believed his own time was worth more than that of his audience (the judge). His mistakes cost him — literally. It’s a lesson more professionals should take to heart. Jonathan Hershberg is the founder and president of Opus Associates, a written-communications consulting and training group in New York. He can be reached via e-mail at [email protected] .

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