Suggestions for Good Writing

I assume that you spend a lot of time reading and maybe a lot of time writing too.

As someone who has done a lot of both, I have become sensitized to what I think is better or worse writing.  I think it’s fair to say that there is much room for improvement.  I notice it in my own writing as I clean up writing problems in the fifth, tenth, or later reading.

Comes now Jane Rosenzweig, the director of the Writing Center at Harvard, who gives an “A” to the whistleblower who wrote the memo about the Trump-Ukraine Story.  She notes that the memo gets right to the point, and uses subheadings, strong topic sentences, and active verbs.

I would add that the memo is concise and the sentences are fairly short (often bulleted), making it easier to grasp the material.  The memo contains the necessary substance without unnecessary detail.  It also uses evocative language that quickly captures readers’ attention.

The purpose of all these techniques is for readers to “get” the story clearly and feel moved in some way, emotionally and/or intellectually.  If writers – including ourselves and our students – would do these things, we would read and write better stuff (to use the technical term).

Good Legal Writing (and Not)

I don’t know if the whistleblower has had legal training, but his or her memo was a particularly good example of an effective legal document.  It presents the facts clearly, identifies the evidence, and efficiently relates them to relevant legal authorities.

This memo has stimulated much more serious response by the Congress, media, and public than the Mueller Report.  Obviously, there are many differences in these two situations that explain the different reactions.  I think that a contributing factor may be that the whistleblower memo is a better piece of writing than the Mueller Report, which is full of linguistic contortions that make it hard to understand.

I don’t claim that the reaction to the Mueller Report would have been different if the authors wrote a better document.  It’s noteworthy, however, that some Democrats hoped that Mr. Mueller’s live testimony would stimulate more support of their objectives because it would be like watching a movie instead of reading a book.  In fact, because Mr. Mueller frequently referred to his report itself, his testimony was worse than reading a book – it was more like reading inserts in a statute book, with tidbits of language making sense only by reading some other technical document.  Although the whistleblower memo isn’t exactly a cinematic screenplay, it packs a lot more dramatic punch than the Mueller Report.

In any case, these two documents present a fascinating contrast – and a valuable primer in good (and not so good) writing.


If you are planning to write a piece for the Theory of Change symposium, please take these writing tips to heart.


2 thoughts on “Suggestions for Good Writing”

  1. Thanks for your comment, Brendan. As I mentioned, there are many differences between the situations related to the whistleblower memo and the Mueller Report and you identified some of them. These differences explain some of the differences in people’s reactions to the two documents.

    I disagree with the implication that Mr. Mueller and his team were constrained to write their report as they did because of the nature of their roles and the document they wrote. Consider the documents produced by Leon Jaworski and Kenneth Starr, the investigators leading to the Nixon and Clinton impeachments. Those documents served a similar purpose as the Mueller Report yet the three documents are extremely different. More generally, prosecutors vary widely in the way they write their charging documents, some of which are clearer and more dramatic than others.

    In fact, lawyers have great discretion in the way they write most substantive documents. Lawyers vary greatly in how they draft demand letters, pleadings, briefs, and many other documents. The Mueller team could have written its report more clearly, with stronger declarative sentences etc. and stayed well within their appropriate roles. I used the examples of the whistleblower memo and Mueller Report to illustrate that law students, lawyers, professors, and other writers can and should make conscious choices to make their writing more effective.

  2. John,

    I appreciated this article. In our first year legal writing courses in law school, we are taught the basics of what makes an effective legal writer. Mainly, use strong thesis sentences, use active verbs, and be concise – and it is relieving to know that these skills translate to politics as well.

    However, I think that comparing the writing between the Mueller Report and the whistlerblower complaint is a stretch. Sure, they both negatively implicate the President, but both serve different purposes, and therefore have different formats and writing styles.

    First, the nature of the documents. The Mueller Report is a “report” while the whistlerblower complaint is a “complaint.” The report is a summary, whereas the complaint expresses dissatisfaction. This basic difference in the format of the intended writing lends itself for one (the complaint) to be more persuasive, and use more active verbs, than the other (the report). Further, Mueller is a representative of the DOJ, so it would be alarming if he used persuasive (and subjective) terminology to phrase the findings of his investigation.

    Moreover, though it may be implicit in your note – length matters with regards to readability. the Mueller Report is 448 pages, whereas the whistlerblower complaint is 9 pages. So, considering it is short and to the point, I think most would agree with you that the complaint packs more of a dramatic punch than the report, but that is no fault of Mueller’s legal writing.

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