Tuesday, April 29, 2008


If other writing panaceas — short sentences and active voice — take a harsh toll in the Euphony Virtue, the concrete-words panacea strikes at Concision and Clarity. The recommendation to use concrete words and avoid abstraction arose as a desperate reaction to the pseudo-abstract, high-flown cliché that remains dominant in business and government. Vexing indeed to hear some real-estate agent expound what her issue is "relative to." Technical writing's increased importance and autistic spectrum disorder's surprisingly high incidence among that genre's readers may have reinforced and spread this business-oriented corrective. Even mild autism carries an inability to grasp higher abstractions.

That concrete terms are apprehended faster than abstract ones is a useful result of cognitive science. From this well-established result, it follows that where an abstract and concrete term convey the same meaning, the concrete term is better. The abstract and concrete term convey the same meaning in only a single circumstance, when the concrete term is the referent, and the abstract term is over-inclusive. Thus, if you refer to one person having "received communication from” when you mean "heard," your more abstract concept, "communication," is also over-inclusive, as it potentially includes writing. The concrete word, "heard," is better.

Even this limited rule has exceptions, one of them being cross-domain linkage. In a legal brief, substituting abstractions for concrete words is a way of linking your facts to law or an authoritative holding to the facts of your case. Linking court holdings to your facts through intermediary abstractions is often the threshold for a minimally competent brief, and the most damaging single omission in legal briefs is failure to characterize a statute or holding abstractly to relate it to the facts of your case. I blame the anti-abstractionists' advice for some of lawyers' failure to characterize. You can find a nonlegal example of the use of abstraction for characterization the Disputed Issues posting,
A Rare Shortcut to Better Writing, where occurs, "The physical aspect of writing is little considered, but the method used to transform thought into writing creates a bottleneck for thought, which draws upon a limited pool of cognitive resources, some used in the physical labor of externalizing thought." The abstractions "physical aspect," "bottleneck for thought," "limited pool of cognitive resources," serve Concision by linking specific contentions about typing to general concepts of cognitive psychology, while "transform thought into writing" and "externalizing thought" serve Clarity by maintaining a parallel level of abstraction throughout the sentence.

Abstraction can also improve Clarity, by unifying a document. A brief will contain a few abstract themes, often relating to your legal theory, and these terms should be strung through the brief to create a cohesive whole. In the present essay, “abstraction" itself is a key thematic unifier; in "Rare Shortcut," "resources" is the oft-repeated unifying theme.

Compared to the opposed defect, insufficient abstraction is the greater evil except in the most mundane business correspondence.

Monday, April 21, 2008


Trial-attorney briefs are usually repetitive, a quality that both insults and confuses a judge. The insult comes from under-valuing judicial economy; the confusion, from compelling the judge to interpret redundancy. As to the first, almost everyone these days takes it as a point of pride that others think they are busy people, which judges are. The second point, regarding confusion, applies partly because of lawyers and judges' training in the art of construing texts and partly because this training reinforces natural interpretive processes. When a judge interprets a statute or a contract, he follows a canon disfavoring surplusage, one that instructs a lawyer to assign significance to the entire document. This preference formalizes ordinary interpretive methods and accentuates the ordinary tendency. The result, repetitiveness presses for explanation as non-redundant. The effort to repeat to stamp in claims turns against itself, each repetition creating a somewhat different super-imposed meaning, unpredictable by the writer because unintended.

Another separate way that brute repetitiveness proves self-defeating arises from habituation, in which repeating a stimulus causes the progressive weakening of associated responses. This is the process allowing an organism to ignore constant background stimuli for changes in the foreground of perception. Repeating a proposition decreases its power to move to action, the judge's favorable action being what you seek. One may thus succeed in getting the judge to recollect your argument, at the cost of his seeing its significance.

Trial attorneys may try to repeat themselves, but they could spare themselves that effort. If you make no effort to avoid repetitiveness, it naturally insinuates itself, as repetitiveness is a primary indicator of failed organization. Many trial attorneys even some appellate attorneys consider it helpful to repeat key points, due to confusing recall with persuasion. Conventional English instruction reinforces the repetitive tendency. English teachers tell their high school students to tell the audience what you will say, say it, and tell what you have said, a practice less damaging in writing for purposes besides persuasion.

The persuasive legal writer's goal is to avoid insult, miscue, and habituation, while keeping the favorable effects on recall. The writer achieves this goal by replacing textual repetitiveness by structural and thematic repetition. The writer repeats structurally without being repetitive by encapsulating the brief in a robust set of headings and a detailed, hierarchical table of contents; thematically, by using a small, inter-related set of abstract concepts throughout the brief. These techniques provide the advantages of textual repetitiveness without its inefficiency, prolixity, and misdirection.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

A Rare Shortcut to Better Writing

Helping attorneys choose better ghostwriters, my mission in Disputed Issues, is more modest —and more self-serving — than inculcating writing skill. Not that Disputed Issues would think to withhold a panacea for writing problems, even to protect a trade secret. Panaceas for writing problems are indeed often promised. I recall a law-school professor who required students to rewrite any passive voice sentence into active, and he advertised that this one change would work tremendous improvement in student writing. Solutions on offer in the popular culture are as simplistic, with short sentences the current favorite. Even some well-respected works, such as Strunk, include panacea mongering. If Disputed Issues eschews improving the writing skills of the masses — or even of the lawyers among them — the reality that the panaceas are mirages figures as at least one of the main reasons. But if a true writing panacea exists, you almost certainly don't know it because the numerous popular solutions do not lack exponents. I am aware of no advocate of my suggestion, which also affords a quick and dirty way to estimate the writing skills of a ghostwriter whose hire you are considering. My advice is: put serious effort into improving your typing speed.

The physical aspect of writing is little considered, but the method used to transform thought into writing creates a bottleneck for thought, which draws upon a limited pool of cognitive resources, some used in the physical labor of externalizing thought. Mental-resource limitation is the basis for the intuition that the stupid person is unable to walk and chew gum simultaneously and is the reason that multitasking has rightly fallen into disrepute. When you devote resources to the physical process of writing, they are unavailable for thinking, diminishing your ability to think the thought you would transfer to a medium. One of the most well-researched examples of resource limitation is channel capacity. Each sensory modality has a channel capacity that is semi-autonomous from other channels, so that if you try to look at one thing and listen to another, you will be more successful than if you listen to two different things piped to opposite ears.

Logically, this limitation of resources presents two ways to improve performance on the focal task: decreasing the resources that the brain must devote to competing tasks and choosing methods that have fewer overlapping resources. Improving your typing speed will decrease your use of resources at any given speed, as gaining skill amounts to making processing more automatic, and automatized processes are almost free of resource costs. Typing also involves less resource competition than alternative methods of output. Your dominant hemisphere, which takes the leading role in verbal thought, controls your dominant hand, usually one's unique instrumentality for handwriting. In being a linear process, typing also uses primarily the dominant hemisphere, but the labor is distributed over both hands, allowing the noncompeting nondominant to play a role. The other alternative to typing, dictation, drains the same resources involved in thought, because producing a stream of natural language, compared to striking keys or even writing with pen or pencil, is more akin to the language of thought.

In more obvious ways as well, the labor of transcription interferes with production of written work. The more arduous the work of transcription, the more the writer must buck the instinct for laziness, but with greater automatization and less attention, the physical work becomes less boring. The physical aspect of writing is often one of the least inviting. I predict that a substantial improvement in typing speed would cure many a case of writer's block.

You may not believe me without trying it. Once convinced, you have also gained a secret, slightly base way to screen prospective ghostwriters if you discover their typing speed.