Legal Writing Tips – Use definite, specific, concrete language

Use definite, specific, concrete language

Prefer the specific to the general, the definite to the vague, the concrete to the abstract.

A period of unfavorable weather set in. It rained every day for a week
He showed satisfaction as he took possession of his well-earned reward. He grinned as he pocketed the coin

If those who have-studied the art of writing are in accord on anyone point, it is this: the surest way to arouse and hold the reader’s attention is by being specific, definite, and con­crete. The greatest writers-Homer, Dante, Shakespeare are effective largely because-they deal in particulars and report the details that matter.. Their words call up pictures. Jean Stafford, to cite a more modern author, demon­strates in her short story “In the Zoo” how prose is made vivid by the use of words that evoke images and sensations:

Daisy and I in time found asylum in a small menagerie down by the railroad tracks. It belonged to a gentle alcoholic ne’er-do-well, who did nothing all day long but drink bathtub gin in rickeys and play solitaire arid smile to himself and talk to his animals. He had. a little, stunted red vixen and a deodorized skunk; a parrot from Tahiti that spoke Parisian French, a woebegone coyote, and two capuchin monkeys, so serious and humanized, so small and sad and sweet, and so religious­ looking with their tonsured heads that it was impossible not to think their gibberish was really-an ordered language with a grammar that someday some philologist would understand.

Gran knew about our visits to Mr. Murphy and she did not object, for it gave her keen pleasure to excoriate him when we came home. His vice was not a matter of guesswork; it was an established fact that .he was half-seas over from dawn till midnight. “With the black Irish,” said Gran, “the taste for drink is taken in with the mother’s milk and is never mastered. Oh, I know all about those promises to join the temperance movement and not to touch another drop. The way to Hell is paved with good intentions.”

If the experiences of Walter Mitty, of Molly Bloom, of Rabbit Angstrom have seemed for the moment real to countless readers, if in reading Faulkner we have almost the sense of inhabiting Yoknapatawpha County during the decline of the South, it is because the details used are definite, the terms concrete. It is not that every detail is given that would be impossible, as well as to no purpose ­but that all the Significant details are given and with such accuracy and vigor that readers, in-imagination, can project themselves into the scene.

In exposition and in argument, the writer must likewise never lose hold of the concrete; ‘and ‘even when dealing with general principles, the Writer must furnish particular instances of their application.

In his Philosophy of Style, Herbert Spencer gives two sentences to illustrate how the vague and general can be turned into the vivid and particular:

In proportion as the manners, customs, and amusements of a nation are cruel and barbarous, the regulations of its penal code will be severe. In proportion as men delight in battles, bull­fights, and combats of glad­iators, will they punish by hanging, punish by hanging,

To show what happens when strong writing is deprived of its vigor, George Orwell once took a passage from the

*Excerpt from “In the Zoo” from Bad Characters by, Jean Stafford: Reprinted by the permission of Russell & Volkening as agents for the author. Copyright © 1953 by Jean Stafford. Bible and drained it of its blood. On the left, below, is Orwell’s translation; on the right, the verse from Ecclesi­astes (King James Version).

Objective consideration of contemporary phenome­na compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities ex­hibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a consid­erable  element of the unpredictable must inevitably be taken into account. I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of under­standing, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance but time and chance.


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