Sunday, 3 March 2013

On writing well: or notes from a glass-house dweller

I have occasionally bothered you, dear reader, with diatribes about bad writing, criticising motes while happily ignoring any number of beams in my own eye. I hope not. A coincidence of several quite separate matters - a confluence of different streams, perhaps - this morning causes me to initiate a new theme for this blog. Not to the exclusion of intellectual property, otherwise why the name for it, but in addition.

Yesterday my wife read to me a sentence from the opening page of the book she had just started to read. It is about, or at least set during, the Second World War, and it began by describing civil defence measures, including the distribution of 38 million gas masks to every [sic] person in the country. Why, when they could only wear one at a time?

And then this morning, reading through some excellent legal writing blogs (not all American: the exception is Mark Anderson's excellent IP Draughts) which I should have been reading for years, I thought about a letter I was recently asked to give an opinion on, a document in which the organisation on whose behalf it was written offered funding for a project run by the addressee. It used the formula "through A and through B", where both A and B were dedicated sums of money (though in the case of B no precise figure was placed on it: the amount in the addressee's contemplation was very close to being the same as A, which may have accounted for some of the confusion). The addressee expected to receive A and B (or in value approximately 2A). The writer contends that it was intended to offer the sum only once: that A+B added up to what the addressee had in mind for A. In which case, it seemed to me, the correct form of words would have been "through A and B", although that preposition does trouble me and whether it would convey the intended meaning is arguable.

The letter in question was written by a person with an education far superior to that of most people in the country: a head teacher, as it happens. But lawyers are not immune from the failure to use the right words to convey accurately what they wish to say (or, looking at it a rather different way, using words that convey something other than what they intend). There are lengthy discussions on some of those blogs about the time needed to write well, arguing that clients should not be charged for the time lawyers spend turning out good prose: but clients certainly should not be charged for writing that's bad not in the sense that it's inelegant but in the sense that it's ambiguous or downright wrong. "Right first time" used to be a common watchword (I remember it being peddled by the managing partner of a a firm I worked for years ago, who rarely got anything right first time himself), and surely what the legal profession should be aiming at is producing writing that conveys the correct sense first time, regardless of whether several redrafts wouldn't make it read even better.

On which note, without re-reading what I have just written, I will press the "publish" button and be damned.

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