SHOT SELECTION.

Author:Barry, Patrick J.
 
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SHOT SELECTION

The simple declarative sentence used in making a plain statement is one sound. But Lord love ye it mustn 't be worked to death. (1) One of the more common pieces of writing advice in our post-Hemingway world is to keep sentences short. Experts on legal writing are particularly fond of this position--and for good reason. Few judges look at the sentences that appear in briefs, memos, statutes, and contracts and say, "You know what each of those could use? More words." (2)

Professor Noah Messing does a particularly good job making the case for short sentences. Brevity, he explains, "reduces the risk that your writing will confuse or irk readers," (3) especially given that "empirical studies show that writing verbosely makes writers sound dumber, not smarter." (4) He even suggests that struggling writers consider imposing on themselves a strict twenty-five-word limit. He admits that the limit will sound radical to some people, but he insists that it produces remarkable results. (5) "Simply by keeping sentences under twenty-five words," he suggests,

writers ensure that they comply with many of the principles of good style. They hack wordy phrases, cut passive verbs, and limit the number of ideas in any given sentence, among other salutary changes. The results tend to thrill clients and supervisors, both because coping with the twenty-five-word limit causes writing to sparkle and because short sentences are vastly easier for them to edit. (6) Yet Professor Messing and others caution against taking a commitment to concision too far. "Even as you follow my advice to write short sentences," he warns, "beware of one grave risk. If every sentence resembles every other sentence, your prose will grow dull, sound robotic, or convey anger." (7) None of those qualities will help you win a lot of cases.

The standard remedy for this off-putting homogeneity is to vary your sentence structure, a practice I have persuaded my students to adopt by encouraging them to consider the importance of shot selection. Think of a basketball team, I tell them. To be successful, the players must be able to make long shots, like three-pointers, and they will also need to be able to make short shots, like lay-ups and dunks. A team that relies on only one form of scoring will become predictable... even boring. Variety makes them more effective (8)... and more fun to watch.

Or sometimes I use tennis as the analogy. A tennis player who excels back at the baseline or up at the net will not go as far as a tennis player who excels back at the baseline and up at the net. Nor will someone who only has a good forehand go as far as someone who has both a good forehand and a good backhand.

Part of what makes Roger Federer perhaps the greatest tennis player of all time, for example, is the completeness of his skillset. As the writer David Foster Wallace explained in 2006, the range of Federer's game inspires a profound sense of awe:

Federer's forehand is a great liquid whip, his backhand a one-hander that can drive flat, load with topspin, or slice--the slice with such snap that the ball turns shapes in the air and skids on the grass to maybe ankle height. His serve has world-class pace and a degree of placement and variety no one else comes close to; the service motion is lithe and uneccentric, distinctive (on TV) only in a certain eel-like all-body snap at the moment of impact. His anticipation and court sense are otherworldly, and his footwork is the best in the game--as a child, he was also a soccer prodigy. (9) Imagine if your writing had Federer's grace and versatility, if you could communicate in more than one mode, at more than one velocity, and through more than one syntactic configuration. Think of the range of thoughts you'd be able to articulate, and how nimble and customized you could make your arguments. One-dimensional writing, like one-dimensional lawyering, is not very persuasive. The best appellate advocates have a much bigger repertoire of shots.

  1. VITAL AND ALIVE

    The appellate writer's repertoire of shots includes more than just a range of sentence structures. It also includes a range of sentence lengths. Which is why I ask my students to try this exercise:

    * Circle the longest sentence on a page of your writing.

    * Then circle the shortest sentence.

    * Now subtract the length of the shortest sentence from the length of the longest sentence.

    If your longest sentence is thirty-six words and your shortest sentence is thirty-four words, you have a problem. If your longest sentence is eight words and your shortest sentence is six words, you also have a problem. In fact, even if your longest sentence is twenty-one words and your shortest sentence is nineteen words--making your average sentence length right around that sweet spot of twenty words recommended by many style guides (10)--you still have a problem. The range of your sentences, in all these cases, is way too uniform.

    Professor Joseph Williams identifies the issue nicely. Instead of using an analogy to basketball or tennis, he uses an analogy to music. "The ability to write clear, crisp sentences that never go beyond twenty words is a considerable achievement," he explains. "You'll never confuse a reader with sprawl, wordiness, or muddy abstraction. But if you never write sentences longer than twenty words, you'll be like a pianist who uses only the middle octave; you can carry the tune, but without much variety or range." (11)

    The travel writer and novelist Pico Iyer takes a similar position, characterizing our writing as too often "telegraphic as a way of keeping our thinking simplistic, our feeling slogan-crude." (12) The short sentence, he says, "is the domain of uninflected talk-radio rants and shouting heads on TV who feel that qualification or subtlety is an assault on their integrity (and not, as it truly is, integrity's greatest adornment)." (13) He even worries that "[i]f we continue along this road, whole areas of feeling and cognition and experience will be lost to us." (14) Brevity is efficient, he acknowledges, but at what cost?

    Mr. Iyer suggests we use longer sentences, more hospitable to depth and nuance, as a way to resist the speed and urgency of texts, news flashes, and constantly updating internet feeds. (15) "'Not everyone," he...

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