The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
When I write, I keep two primary principles in mind. First, I use as few words as necessary to convey an idea. Second, I ensure that every sentence is sequenced in the correct order. If a word is not necessary, I delete it. If a word is out of place, I move it around.
Let's start with the first principle. Everyone has a short attention span. At some point, even the most patient readers will abandon an unnecessarily long book, essay, or blog post. But this dynamic also works on a micro level. At some point, even the most patient reader will abandon an unnecessarily long sentence. Shorter is always better. My general approach: where possible, use one subject and one verb per sentence. If you need to convey two concepts, write a second sentence. And ensure there is a proper linkage from the first sentence to the second sentence. If you have to nest multiple parentheticals and em-dashes in a sentence, you need to start over.
Writing in this fashion is much harder. When you break up sentences, you will realize that your ideas may not fit together as well as you thought they did. And that process will probably force you to write and rewrite and rewrite the first sentence. Shorter is always better.
I admit that short, choppy sentences, may be less pleasant to read. So be it. I will gladly sacrifice fluidity for clarity. In any event, this concern is overstated. With experience, you can write short sentences with grace. Short-writing will take more time. But that time is very well spent. A famous quote, falsely attributed to Mark Twain, articulates my philosophy: "If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter." Take the plunge. Break it up.
My second principle follows from the first: every word I write must be in the correct place. Stated differently, sentences must be sequenced correctly. Sentence one must be understood on its own, without regard to sentence two. Sentence two must be understood on its own, and should build on sentence once. Sentence three must be understood on its own, and should build on sentences one and two. And so on.
Easier said than done. Often, writers will begin a paragraph with a concept that is more fully developed later. That first sentence cannot be understood without reading further–if ever. The author may presume that the reader will stick around till the end of the paragraph. I never make that assumption about my reader. I presume that you may stop reading at any point. Even right now.
If I have to read a sentence more than twice, and still don't fully understand that sentence, I will move on. And I may not even finish the paragraph. The author has failed. If there is some information needed to understand that first sentence, then you need a new first sentence. Rearrange the paragraph. I think of writing a paragraph like building a skyscraper. Start with the foundation. Then build one floor at a time. You can't start with the spire. Each paragraph must be treated as self contained entity, that must be read in the correct order.
Some authors find it valuable to spin out dense prose that readers must decipher. As if a book was like a treasure hunt! Perhaps these luminaries have latitude to toy with their readers. Most academics become prominent for what they write; not how they write. Aspiring academics should not emulate that strategy. From the outset, writers should ensure that every sentence can be understood in sequence. Readers should never have to go back and reread a prior sentence.
On the Supreme Court today, Chief Justice Roberts consistently follows these two principles. (As much as his jurisprudence frustrates me, I always appreciate his writing). First, he writes with surgical precision. There is seldom a wasted word. When I edit a Roberts opinion for the casebook, there are no easy cuts. Second, each sentence builds on the previous sentence. His controlling opinion in NFIB v. Sebelius is a masterclass in foundation building. Each part builds on the previous part cleanly. For this reason, I put a lot of weight in the structure of Part III. Part III.C must be understood as derivate of Parts III.A and III.B.
Justice Kagan consistently nails the second approach. I love reading her opinions because they flow like a storybook. There is a beginning. A middle. And a clear end. Though she proudly deviates from the first principle. She loves parenthetical asides. Some of them are tad shticky, but I enjoy the banter. I hope to edit many more Kagan opinions for the casebook. I hope Justice Breyer assigns her more dissents.