LawProse Lesson #403 The Reader over Your Shoulder

LawProse Lesson #403 The Reader over Your Shoulder

In 1943, Robert Graves and Alan Hodge wrote a classic book on English prose: The Reader over Your Shoulder: A Handbook for Writers of English Prose. It has stayed in print ever since, enjoying a particular upsurge in sales when re-released in the late 1970s. In their opening chapter, Graves and Hodge focus on a problem that every writer must confront: the modern reader, who is constantly burdened by distractions and competing obligations.

“It is not that modern people are less intelligent than their grandparents: only that, being busier, they are less careful. They must learn to take shortcuts, skimming through the columns of a newspaper, flicking over the pages of a book or magazine, deciding at each new paragraph or page whether to read it either attentively or cursorily, or whether to let it go unread. There is a running commentary in the mind.” (P. 23.)

If that was true of general readers in 1943, it was also true of judges reading briefs in 1943. And now, 80 years later, the words endure prophetically: the statement has never held truer than it does in 2023.

The great challenge to the modern legal writer is to master a hyper-efficient way of conveying information in a way that is relentlessly clear, useful, attention-inducing. Your prose should never become boring.

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