Over the last couple weeks, I have read and reread hundreds of posts from legal blogs. My reason for doing this was to screen the entries submitted in the inaugural LexBlog Excellence Awards contest, before sending the finalists off to the judging panel that will select the winners.
In reading through all these posts, I was thrilled to see confirmation of what I already believed – that there are a lot of legal professionals putting a lot of work and thought into writing high-quality posts – posts that are thoughtful, informative, analytical, instructive and sometimes even funny.
But I also found myself making notes of comments I’d make to some of the authors, had I been their editor. There is no right or wrong way to write a blog post. But lawyers often fall into the trap of sounding like, well, lawyers.
Even setting aside the legalisms we might expect, lawyers often exhibit a rigidity in their writing that gets drilled into them starting in law school. Simple changes to some posts could have made them more readable.
So here are some of the random notes I jotted down, in no particular order. Take them or leave them for what they may be worth to you.
Be catchy in your lede. Your lede paragraph is your opportunity to rope in the reader. Lawyers too often squander this opportunity. Use the lede to tell the reader what you’re writing about and why it matters. And keep it brief and punchy.
Don’t bury the lede. I often see posts that start with something like:
“On June 1, 2019, the Supreme Court decided the case of Smith v. Jones, ___ U.S. ___, on appeal from an en banc decision of the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals.”
Later – maybe in the same long paragraph or lower in the post — it goes on:
“This is the most important decision ever in the area of widget law and will require manufacturers to make major changes in their business processes.”
Why make me wade through the muck to find the flower. Just flip it:
“A Supreme Court ruling yesterday is the most important decision ever in the area of widget law and will require manufacturers to make major changes in their business processes.”
You can then go on:
“In the decision, Smith v. Jones, the court held that widget manufacturers are liable when … “
Start with why it matters. This is a variation on the last point, but I often see posts that start with legalistic recitations of procedural or contextual formalities. They read more like legal pleadings than blog posts. Give me the meat up front – start by telling me why what you’re writing about matters and then step back and provide the background and context.
Set the theme early. This is yet another variation on the preceding points. Keep in mind that your readers are professionals who are often busy and impatient. What are you doing in this post? Are you arguing a point? Are you providing tips? Are you analyzing a trend? What audience are you targeting? Make this as clear as you can as early as you can.
Consider using a style guide for consistency. Consistency of usage and style makes your writing more polished and professional. To ensure consistency, professional news organizations and publishing houses use style guides. I do too. My preferred guide is The Associated Press Stylebook, but there are others out there. I would particularly recommend this for larger firms that have multiple blogs or for blogs that have multiple authors.
Face it – you have a capitalization problem. Lawyers love to capitalize, even when the rules of grammar say not to. Take time to revisit the rules as you knew them before you went to law school. Not sure whether to capitalize? Then see that stylebook I mentioned above.
Be mindful of structure. One of the basic rules of writing is that every story should have a beginning, middle and end. Tell us up front what your post is about, use the middle to flesh out the topic, then bring it all home in the end, somehow bringing the reader back to where you started.
Use visual cues. Remember that blogs are visual as well as textual media. That means you should think about how your post looks, not just about how it reads. Make it visually easy for the reader to move through a post by keeping paragraphs short and by using visual cues such as subheads and bullets.
Keep paragraphs short. I know I just said this, but it bears repeating. Lawyers have a propensity for writing long, dense paragraphs. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain in readability by hitting the enter key every few sentences. If you’re worried it might interrupt the flow for the reader, don’t. I promise you, it will make your post more readable and easier to follow.
Keep sentences short. Short sentences are more readable. Yet lawyers love long sentences. Consider every comma and conjunction and ask why it isn’t a period.
Check hyperlinks. Nothing worse for a reader than clicking a link and finding it does not work or it points to the wrong source. Before you hit the publish button, check your links.
Footnotes? Really? Avoid footnotes. Use hyperlinks instead. You’re not trying out for law review here.
Don’t assume the reader knows as much as you. Writing instructors teach, “Do the work for the reader.” But legal bloggers have a propensity for throwing around arcane concepts, undefined acronyms, and legal references as if every reader will immediately understand. Look, I understand that legal bloggers are often writing for sophisticated readers – even for other lawyers in their same practice area — but why assume knowledge? It is a simple matter to spell out an acronym on first reference or to insert a clause briefly explaining a concept. Your readers will love you for it.
Personality isn’t poison. Don’t be afraid to inject some personality into your posts. Think of blogging as a conversation with your readers. It’s OK to be opinionated, to be funny, even to be vulnerable. Remember, you’re writing blog posts, not briefs – you’re writing to engage, not to convince.
Don’t sacrifice clarity for cleverness. No one loves a good pun more than me. But I saw too many examples of headlines that were so enamored of their own cleverness that the reader was left clueless as to the subject of the post. And if the reader is clueless as to the subject of the post, then guess what? The reader is less likely to read the post. Write headlines that help the reader decide whether to read the post.
But if you insist … If you simply cannot bring yourself to abandon your masterwork of a clever headline, then at least let the reader know in the first couple paragraphs what the post is about. Don’t assume that the reader is going to stick with your detour until halfway through your post before learning where you’re actually headed. I saw several posts like this, where the author was so taken with the cleverness of an idea that the author just kept at it through several paragraphs, only eventually getting around to bringing the clever idea home to the subject at hand.
Don’t be a minimalist. Another error in headline writing is to be so minimalist that the reader can’t tell what the post is about. The headline is your lure, use it to tell readers your topic – and why it matters.
Remember redundancy. Somewhere along the line, we all were taught to avoid redundancy. Then came law school and beat it back into us. A simple but frequent example is the use of “new.” If you tell us that it was just launched or signed into law, you don’t need to describe it as new — “launched a company” not “launched a new company” or “the president signed a law” not “the president signed a new law.”
Know your reader. It is a cardinal rule of writing, but one too often observed in the breach. Not only should you know who you are writing for, but you need to make sure the reader knows as well.
Who wrote it and when? Drives me crazy when a blog post omits the author or date. Drives me even crazier when it omits both. As a reader, I want to know who wrote a post and when. The “when” is important information, especially when you are writing about developments in the law. For some of the entries in our contest, we had to reveal the underlying markup language to determine when they were published. Do the work for the reader.
Read and reread. Before you hit the publish button on a blog post, stop and read it over. I was surprised at the number of typographical errors, incomplete sentences, missing words, misspelled words, and other simple errors I saw – even right in the first paragraph. For my own posts, I find it helpful to review a draft in preview mode, which lets me see it as the reader will. If you have someone available, it never hurts to have a second set of eyes review it before it goes out.
Consider using editing tools. I typically draft posts right in WordPress, but WordPress lacks sophisticated tools for editing and checking spelling and grammar. For longer posts, or if you’re not confident of your own spelling and grammar skills, consider drafting the post in Word and then pasting the final text into WordPress. In Word, you might even want to use one of the advanced editing and proofreading tools designed for legal professionals, such as WordRake or PerfectIt.
Preview your images. I already mentioned previewing your post as a method of reviewing it before you hit the publish button. But another reason to preview is to ensure that your images will display as you intended them to. Distorted or out-of-kilter images detract from the readability of a page and undermine the professionalism of its appearance.
Make your posts accessible. Speaking of images, there are various simple steps you can take to enhance the accessibility of your blog for people with disabilities. The World Wide Web Consortium provides standards on this. One simple practice is to include “Alt text” with images that describe them for those who cannot see them. WordPress and other blog software make it easy to do this when you post an image.
Avoid legalistic parentheticals. When you say, “the Department of So-and-So,” you don’t have to interject “(the ‘Department’).” When you say, “The Department of So-and-So issued regulations,” you don’t have to interject, “(the ‘Regulations’).” We’re all adults here. We can follow what you’re saying.
Blogs aren’t headnotes. When writing about a case or legal development, don’t feel that you have to cram all the facts or the holding into one lead sentence, in the style of a headnote. Write a brief, catchy lead-in, then expand from there.
Don’t cram in the citation. In the same vein as the last comment, you don’t need to stuff a long case name or citation into the opening paragraph. If the case name is notable for some reason, such as that the case is already well known, then go ahead and mention it. But skip the citation. It’s more important in the lede to describe what happened than it is to name or cite what happened. You can provide the name in a subsequent paragraph or even on a line by itself.
As I said at the outset, there is no right way to write a blog post. The bottom line is to know your audience and to consider how you can make it easy for your readers to engage with your post – and with you.