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    Legal Writing: Style Books, Web Sites, and Podcasts: A Lawyer’s Guide to the Guides

    With a resurgence of interest in grammar, punctuation, and the art of good writing, lawyers now have more options when choosing style guides. To help you choose, the author describes the strengths and weaknesses of several reputable style guides.

    Jill Koch Hayford

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    Wisconsin LawyerWisconsin Lawyer
    Vol. 81, No. 11, November 2008

    Legal Writing

    Style Books, Web Sites, and Podcasts: A Lawyer’s Guide to the Guides 

    With a resurgence of interest in grammar, punctuation, and the art of good writing, lawyers now have more options when choosing style guides. To help you choose, the author describes the strengths and weaknesses of several reputable style guides.

    by Jill Koch Hayford


    Grammar and punctuation are cool again. Books such as Eats, Shoots and Leaves1 and Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies2 and even popular comedy shows such as The Daily Show and The Colbert Report3 are covering these topics. Renewed interest by the public has brought about a greater selection of books, Web sites, and even podcasts that address matters of grammar, punctuation, and style. This article describes the strengths and weaknesses of several of these resources, sometimes called “style guides,” so that each lawyer can choose the best one to meet his or her needs.

    Style Guides in Book Form

    There is a wide range of style guides in book form. Some are designed for all writers, and others are specifically for lawyers. The advantage to guides designed for all writers is that they cover more grammar and punctuation rules, and they cover them in greater depth. On the other hand, one advantage to law-specific style guides is that they narrow the coverage to rules that frequently trouble lawyers, focusing only on what lawyers need most. Another advantage to law-specific guides is that they cover the topics in the context of documents that lawyers frequently draft, such as interoffice memoranda, briefs, client letters, and contracts. Accordingly, when choosing between the two types of guides, a lawyer should consider whether to invest in a comprehensive, grammar-and-punctuation reference book or in a lawyer-friendly refresher on basic rules.4 Below is a brief summary of some widely available style guides in book form, divided according to intended audience.

    Guides Written Specifically for Lawyers

    • A Form and Style Manual for Lawyers.5 Written in a relatively informal style, this guide is appealing to lawyers who prefer to take tips from a coach instead of a curmudgeon. The book is organized according to the writing process of pre-writing, writing, formatting, and editing. Practicing attorneys will be most interested in the chapters on writing, which range from using plain English to organizing an analysis using subheadings. The book also dispels many common grammar myths and provides advice on drafting litigation documents and business correspondence. Some readers might find some of the advice too basic (for example, the formatting chapter details how to use shortcut keys and default settings on a word processor).
    • Just Writing.6 This book includes basic grammar and punctuation rules as well as style suggestions, such as how to craft an effective paragraph.7 A real strength is that the book was written by two experts, one an attorney with experience in writing legal documents and the other a writing specialist with education and training in rhetoric and composition. Thus, the style rules apply specifically to the problems lawyers encounter when drafting legal documents, and yet the rules are grounded in fundamental principles of rhetoric and composition. For example, the chapter on effective paragraphs describes the two basic shapes – “hourglass” and “V” – of paragraphs written in any discipline and then explains why the V shape is more effective in legal writing. Another strength is that the book includes a chapter on eloquence, which goes beyond the basics to help lawyers take their writing to the next level.
    • The Redbook.8 Prolific legal writer Bryan Garner divided this book into three parts: mechanics, grammar and usage, and preparing legal documents. This compact, spiral-bound book covers a lot of grammar. It also includes specific style recommendations for research memos and briefs, opinion letters, demand letters, pleadings, motions, and contracts.
    • Drafting Contracts: How and Why Lawyers Do What They Do.9 This book is a comprehensive guide to the style rules that pertain to the building blocks of drafting and editing contracts. The book covers such matters as revising legalese, avoiding ambiguity, and providing clarity through sentence structure. However, because some of this information is available in more general style manuals, the book’s real strength is in the other matters it also covers: translating the business deal into contract concepts, formatting contracts, deconstructing complex provisions, and adding value to the deal. For this reason, the book will appeal to transactional lawyers who want more than a style guide.
    Jill Koch Hayford

    Jill Koch Hayford, Harvard 1985, is associate professor of legal writing at Marquette University Law School, where she teaches legal analysis, writing, and research, and contract drafting. She previously practiced banking and bankruptcy law at Reinhart, Boerner, Van Deuren s.c.   

    Guides Written for Writers in All Professions

    • Chicago Manual of Style.10 Now in its 15th edition, this manual has sold more than 1 million copies since its inception.11 At nearly 900 pages, this manual is exhaustive in its coverage, providing basic and advanced rules and their exceptions. For example, the rules on commas span 17 pages and detail 67 discrete uses. The book is well organized and includes an extensive index, although some users may find it difficult to wade through the myriad examples and exceptions in search of an answer to a simple question. Because The Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation references The Chicago Manual of Style as an acceptable style manual for some matters,12 the Chicago Manual is thought to be consistent with legal writing conventions.
    • The Gregg Reference Manual.13 This book is a comprehensive, respected authority on grammar, punctuation, and style. While The Chicago Manual of Style is used extensively in the writing and publishing world, The Gregg Reference Manual is intended for the business world, as is evident by its focus on business correspondence. It includes many rules, together with clear explanations and examples.
    • The Elements of Style. Also known as “Strunk & White,“ this pocket-size style guide has informed several generations of writers since it was first published, in 1918.14 Accordingly, it enjoys wide acceptance and thus has the advantage of authority. It does not cover everything, however, and some readers may find its prescriptive rules too rigid.

    Style Guides Via the Web

    Many writers and publishers of style books also maintain companion Web sites. For example, the companion Web site for The Chicago Manual of Style is www.chicagomanualofstyle.org. Web sites typically include the manual’s content online, in searchable form.15

    The writing centers of many colleges and universities also maintain Web sites with grammar, punctuation, and style tips. One of the most extensive is Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab (the OWL), available at owl.english.purdue.edu. The OWL offers more than 200 resources, including handouts, tutorials, and PowerPointTM presentations on grammar and writing mechanics and information on issues common to workplace and professional writing. While the OWL Web site targets university students, its resources may be of interest to anyone seeking a quick and free answer to a basic question.16

    Style Tips Via Podcast

    • Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing. A relative newcomer to the grammar scene, this series of podcasts is available on iTunes, where it has rated as highly as second in number of downloads per day,17 and at www.quickanddirtytips.com.18 Each podcast covers a discrete and narrowly focused topic, and so each podcast requires only a few minutes of listening time. For example, recent podcasts covered “Hyphens: Is the Glass Half Full or Half-Empty?” and “Irregardless v. Regardless: If It’s in the Dictionary, Does That Make It a Real Word?”19
    • Grammar Grater. Even newer than Grammar Girl, this series of podcasts is sponsored by Minnesota Public Radio and is available on iTunes and at http://minnesota.publicradio.org/tools/podcasts/grammar_grater. The weekly series has a slightly narrower focus than Grammar Girl; according to its Web site, Grammar Grater concerns “English words, grammar and usage for the Information Age.” In other words, its focus is on grammar issues that arise in electronic communication, such as email, blog posts, and instant messages. Like Grammar Girl, Grammar Grater has discrete topics, and each lesson is well researched and written in an entertaining style.


    Once thought of as esoteric topics, grammar, punctuation, and style are enjoying a renaissance today; consequently, lawyers have more options when choosing style guides to meet their writing needs.


    1 Lynne Truss, Eats, Shoots and Leaves (Penguin Group (USA) Inc. 2003) (an entertaining look at punctuation, written by a comedian and avowed “stickler”).

    2June Casagrande, Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies: A Guide to Language for Fun and Spite (Penguin Group (USA) Inc. 2006) (a response of sorts to Eats, Shoots and Leaves).

    3The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are broadcast on television’s Comedy Central. Punctuation-related humor was the subject of The Colbert Report’s March 4, 2008, episode (hyphen placement can make a difference in meaning, for example, “Nazi treasure-hunter” versus “Nazi-treasure hunter”).

    4The two types of guides rarely conflict in the substance of the grammar rules they cover, and so for law firms choosing a style guide, it makes some sense to give each attorney the option of choosing an easier-to-use, law-specific guide for individual use but to mandate a more comprehensive guide as the arbiter of “firm style.”

    5Ian Gallacher, A Form and Style Manual for Lawyers (Carolina Academic Press 2005). Gallacher is assistant professor of law at Syracuse University Law School.

    6Anne Enquist & Laurel Currie Oates, Just Writing (Aspen Publishers, 2d ed. 2005). Enquist is a writing specialist, and Oates is a legal writing professor who formerly practiced law; both are faculty members at the University of Seattle Law School.

    7Just Writing is a distillation of a longer text, The Legal Writing Handbook: Analysis, Research & Writing (Aspen Publishers, 4th ed. 2007), which is used in legal writing and research courses at many law schools. In addition to grammar, punctuation, and style, The Legal Writing Handbook covers topics such as reading cases and statutes, synthesizing legal rules, and researching legal issues. Because it covers these topics, most attorneys would find The Handbook cumbersome to use as a style guide, although it would be a good choice for attorneys who did not have a legal writing course in law school.

    8Bryan A. Garner, The Redbook (West 2002). Garner is editor-in-chief of Black’s Law Dictionary and the author or editor of several books, including A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage (Oxford Univ. Press, 2d ed. 2005) and The Winning Brief: 100 Tips for Persuasive Briefing in Trial and Appellate Courts (Oxford Univ. Press, 2d ed. 2004).

    9Tina L. Stark, Drafting Contracts: How and Why Lawyers Do What They Do (Aspen Publishers 2007). Stark is professor in the practice of law at Emory University School of Law.

    10Chicago Manual of Style (Univ. of Chicago Press, 15th ed. 2006).

    11Available at <www.chicagomanualofstyle.org>.

    12The Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation 76 (Columbia L. Rev. Ass’n eds., 18th ed. 2005).

    13William A. Sabin, The Gregg Reference Manual McGraw-Hill Irwin, 10th ed. 2005).

    14William Strunk Jr. & E.B. White, The Elements of Style (Pearson, 4th ed. 2000). The 2005 edition of this venerated style guide contains illustrations drawn by Maira Kalmann.

    15Readers should be aware that a book’s edition on a Web site might not be the same as the printed edition. For instance, although The Elements of Style is available at www.bartleby.com, the online edition is the first rather than the fourth edition. Readers also should know that there might be a fee to access the online edition. For example, registered users pay $14.75 per year to access The Gregg Reference Manual online (see www.mhhe.com/business/buscom/gregg).

    16The Writing Center at U.W.-Madison also maintains a Web site, www.wisc.edu/writing/index.html, as does the Writing Center at Marquette University, www.marquette.edu/wac/. The sites include a Writer’s Handbook with information on grammar and punctuation, although neither site is as extensive as the OWL.

    17David E. Williams, “‘Grammar Girl’ a Quick and Dirty Success,” Jan. 25, 2007, available at <www.cnn.com/2007/TECH/internet/01/22/grammar.girl/index.html>.

    18According to the Web site, Mignon Fogarty, a magazine and technical writer, is the founder and managing director of Quick and Dirty Tips and the creator of Grammar Girl.

    19Episodes 93 and 94, respectively, Feb. 1, 2008 and Feb. 8, 2008, available at <www.quickanddirtytips.com/default.aspx>.