The Most Overlooked Application Weakness: Writing Poorly

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I read an article in the newspaper yesterday about the ridiculous emails college professors get from their students, using txt language instead of proper English. While I think law school applicants are too smart to put “u” instead of “you” in law school applications, and I’ve yet to see “LOL” in a personal statement or letter of continued interest, I think that professional level writing (or even what constitutes “good” writing) is a mystery to many law school applicants. Amanda Ellis, Esq., a legal recruiter in Texas, recently wrote this article, “Brevity is Bliss to Clients, Employers” for her newsletter. I love her newsletter; it’s a great resource for anyone who hopes to enter the legal profession.  I asked Amanda’s permission to reprint her article here, but I’ve taken the liberty of making some small adjustments and edits to make it more applicable to my audience.

Brevity is Bliss
by Amanda C. Ellis, Esq.
Does your resume or personal statement or Letter of Continuing Interest for a law school contain the following?

  • Nickel words
  • Sentences under 22 words
  • Sixth-grade readability

Doug Williams of Fuse5 Communications provided some powerful writing statistics and tips during his panel presentation at the Texas Women Lawyers’ 2010 Conference. While his presentation focused on writing tips for client development purposes, the same rule applies to law school application materials and communications with law schools:

Keep it simple with nickel words,  sentences under 22 words and sixth-grade readability.
I found three tools to help you follow Doug’s sound advice.

Nickel Words

Doug urged lawyers to use nickel words, one-syllable words that are simple and direct. Every word won’t be a nickel word but we should use them when we can. As they teach in journalism school, “never use a 10-cent word when a nickel word will do.”

Tools

Think of words you use in client letters or on your resume and see if there is a nickel word substitute. For more nickel words, click here for a list of one-syllable words.

Short Sentences

Doug also shared that sentences between 1 and 8 words have near 100 percent comprehension — thus, readers understand them instantly on a first read. Readers continue to comprehend sentences with 20-22 words; there’s about 75 percent comprehension. However, comprehension drops to 8% for a 44-word sentence. The lesson? Write short sentences if you want to be understood.

Words per sentence Percent comprehension
1-8 words 100%
15 words 90%
22 words 70%
20 words 50%
35 words 32%
44 words 8%

Tools

If you draft documents in Microsoft Word, use the Word Count feature to check the number of words in a sentence or paragraph. Highlight the selected text and click Review in the main menu, then Word Count.

The Word Count box tells you how many words are in the selection.

Sixth-Grade Readability

Finally, Doug encouraged lawyers to speak the language of their audience. A sixth-grader should be able to understand your client letters, form documents and resume.

Doug shared the following examples to illustrate readability mistakes common in correspondence to clients:

  • Pursuant to our conversation of December 20, 2001, I have conducted legal research on the question as to whether your arbitration claim was timely under the Texas Seed Arbitration Act. According to Texas common law construing the Act, the court would apply the plain-meaning canon of construction. (Grade Level:  14.4)
  • Unfortunately, this conclusion is not guaranteed and is subject to certain qualifications discussed herein. (Grade Level: 15.1; 100% Passive Sentences)

Attorney job seekers should also draft resumes and cover letters that a sixth-grader could understand. Remember, the first person to read resumes at a firm or corporate legal department is most likely not a lawyer. Why risk rejection over readability? Revise your resume to pass the sixth-grade readability test. For example, choose descriptions in column B over column A.

A B
Charged with interviewing clients Interviewed clients
Attended and actively participated in mediations for the purpose of settling several multi-million dollar high-profile securities fraud cases Settled multi-million dollar securities fraud cases at mediation
Made court appearances to argue and defend motions and judgment proceedings Argued __ (insert quantity) ___ (describe type) motions resulting in favorable outcomes

Tools

You can test the readability level of your resume, client letter or form document with the Readability Statistics feature in Microsoft Word.

Set the Readability Statistics feature by clicking on the Office Button at the top-left of the screen. Select Word Options.

Select Proofing.

Scroll down to When correcting spelling and grammar in Word and check the Show Readability Statistics box. Click OK to save this setting.

Now, you can check the readability level of any Word document. (Note: you only have to complete the above steps once and then save the settings)

To check the readability level of a document, click Review from the main menu and then Spelling & Grammar.


The Readability Statistics box appears and identifies the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level as well as the percentage of passive sentences.

Conclusion

Use nickel words and short sentences to create client letters, documents and resumes that a sixth-grader could understand. Use the tools available in Microsoft Word to grade your progress. And, practice writing in 140 characters on Twitter; it can make you a better writer.

You can follow Amanda Ellis on Twitter

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