LawProse Lesson #431: Avoiding tailfin leads

LawProse Lesson #431: Avoiding tailfin leads

Do you remember those awful, enormous tailfins sported by American cars in the 1950s? They had no practical function. They didn’t make the cars drive better; there was nothing aerodynamic about them. They had nothing to do with transportation. Their sole purpose was to get attention.

In writing circles, it’s often said that you should avoid tailfin leads: gimmicky, juiced-up, catchpenny openers that amateurish writers often resort to in a desperate attempt to get underway.

An example:

“We’re going over now!” Thus ended a brief distress call on the night of February 1 from the master of the fishing vessel CHICA to the Coast Guard, and shortly thereafter, his life and that of his two crewman.

That’s from a judicial opinion. It would have been equally bad in a brief. Part of its awfulness is callously equating the end of a distress call with the end of three human lives.

Instead, you want an opener that’s integral to the overall structure and form of what you’re writing. It shouldn’t be a marginally relevant bauble meant to entice the reluctant reader. No. It should be essential to the whole—the point at which you embark on a journey with your reader. It should lead seamlessly into the core of what you’re writing.

How do you do that? In analytical and persuasive legal writing—memos, briefs, and legal opinions—you must state the problem clearly and concisely. Clearly. That means in a way that just about anybody can understand, including your nonlawyer relatives. That might take three or four sentences. Concisely. As far as we’re concerned at LawProse, that means within 75 words. We call it a deep issue.

Professor Bryan A. Garner has a time-tested method of teaching people to write deep issues, case after case, whatever the problem. Let him coach you through it.

But whatever you do, remember that if your opening paragraph doesn’t state the problem clearly and concisely, you’ve flunked the most important test of effective legal writing.

Live seminars this year with Professor Bryan A. Garner: Advanced Legal Writing & Editing

Attend the most popular CLE seminar of all time. More than 215,000 people—including lawyers, judges, law clerks, and paralegals—have benefited since the early 1990s. You'll learn the keys to professional writing and acquire no-nonsense techniques to make your letters, memos, and briefs more powerful.

You'll also learn what doesn't work and why—know-how gathered through Professor Garner's unique experience in training lawyers at the country's top law firms, state and federal courts, government agencies, and Fortune 500 companies.

Professor Garner gives you the keys to make the most of your writing aptitude—in letters, memos, briefs, and more. The seminar covers five essential skills for persuasive writing:

  • framing issues that arrest the readers' attention;
  • cutting wordiness that wastes readers' time;
  • using transitions deftly to make your argument flow;
  • quoting authority more effectively; and
  • tackling your writing projects more efficiently.

He teaches dozens of techniques that make a big difference. Most important, he shows you what doesn't work—and why—and how to cultivate skillfulness.

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