Writing Professionally: Language, Punctuation and Tone

By Morag Polaski

I am a self-confessed “word nerd.”  I love words. I love reading, and I read just about anything, including the dictionary.  But, sometimes I forget that not everybody finds the same enjoyment in words. And, I have been known to let my vocabulary get the better of me.  As paralegals, something we cannot afford to do is forget our audience. Quite simply, the “audience” is the other person with whom we are communicating, whether it is in writing or by speech.  We communicate differently when we speak to our own attorneys, opposing counsel, to the court, or to our clients. We assume a level of knowledge from the attorneys and the court (rightly or wrongly) and tend to assume less knowledge on the part of the client.  I volunteer as a Guardian ad Litem and at one point used the word “virulent” in a court report. I assumed that the word and its usage would be understood since my “audience” was a judge and a few attorneys, all of whom had a higher level of education than I did.  I was wrong. Very wrong. The judge asked for a definition of the word right there in the courtroom. (For those interested, the definition is “poisonous” or “intensely noxious,” which certainly described the family situation.)

Language

So how do you write or speak for your audience, to avoid looking like a know-it-all or an idiot?  First, it helps to know who your audience actually is. With pleadings, your audience is attorneys and, eventually, the judge.  Plus, we need to be aware of the local conventions and rules that govern pleadings. Legal writing is a lot different than writing for college, or a letter to your grandma, or a motivational note in your child’s lunchbox.  In legal writing, there are words, word forms, or terms that are possibly archaic or unused, except for the legal profession (aka “legalese”). If you’re drafting a pleading, then a certain amount of “legalese” is expected; however, if you’re writing a letter to the client to update them on the status of their case, avoiding “legalese” is the goal.  In the end, the desired result in both cases is a logically organized document that clearly imparts necessary information. Assuming a particular level of knowledge can be problematic, as shown in the above example, so keeping your language as clear and uncomplicated as possible is also desirable.

In your writing, remember to clearly identify the important points, though it’s possible that the things which are important to you or your attorney are not necessarily the same things that are important to your client or opposing counsel.  As much as possible, use commonly used and accepted language, and if there is a chance that someone won’t understand the word you’ve used (like “virulent”), change it to a word that is more common. If you have the opportunity, read your document to yourself, out loud.  You may remember this trick from school. Often, when we get involved with a lengthy document, our brains know what we want to say and will trick us by inserting words that aren’t actually there. Reading aloud only the words on the page stops this from happening. Try reading your document from the point of view of the recipient to hear how it sounds.

Punctuation

The use of punctuation in the modern age is often basic and limited to periods, commas, and the occasional colon.  Certain punctuation can be overused. Usually it is the comma which is strewn through a document with gay abandon since we tend use them to indicate where you would breathe if you were speaking.  There are several rules regarding grammar and punctuation and just as many great books that are both good reads and good instruction manuals. A personal favorite of mine is “Eats, Shoots & Leaves” by Lynn Truss.  It not only explains the rules of grammar and punctuation, but the “whys” as well. I also keep a copy of the Little, Brown Handbook on my desk for easy reference. Proper use of grammar and punctuation make your writing look professional, without necessarily looking pretentious, the way using an extensive and uncommon vocabulary might.

So far, I’ve really only discussed pleadings and letters.  However, it’s worth including emails as well. We as a society have gotten very comfortable with the concept of email and texting and often don’t approach their composition with the same care we’d take with an actual hardcopy letter.  This is a mistake. Emails (particularly in a legal setting) often carry the same weight as a letter. In many ways, emails and texts have taken on the characteristics of a conversation, and while it’s fine to text your spouse the message “Hey babe, pick up milk on your way home,” I would argue that such a casual tone has no place in professional writing, regardless of the medium.

Because we often “flavor” email correspondence with conversational overtones or perceptions, it’s very easy to misinterpret what is actually being said.  There is (or should be) no tone assumed in email. For example, when I was asked to write this blog post, we were working out the details, and I asked when the post was due.  Keep in mind that I’m on rather friendly terms with the person with whom I was corresponding, and we’ve known each other for several years. She is very aware that I tend to have a dry and somewhat sarcastic sense of humor.  Her response to my question about topic and due date was “You can pick your month on sign-up genius.” I initially read her response as “you can pick your month on sign-up, genius” and thought that she was playing to my sense of humor.  Boy was I wrong!!! Signup Genius is the program the Communications Committee uses to organize their blog post contributions. It was a good thing I wasn’t offended. Tone, lack of punctuation, and capitalization all conspired against my actual understanding of what was said.  Please, don’t ever assume a tone in an email, especially a professional email.

Finally, something I cannot stress enough is proofread your work before you send it out, whether it’s a hardcopy letter or something electronic.  And, proofread it carefully because you may have missed something important. Taking the time to proof your work can avoid taking time to apologize for miscommunications.  Spellcheck is great, but unfortunately cannot divine our intent and will not tag words that are spelled correctly but used incorrectly. For example, while I was proofreading this document, I came across the word “though” where I had intended to write “thought.”  Spellcheck most definitely did not pick that up because it was spelled correctly but was definitely not used correct. Another of my common errors is meaning to type “to the” but instead typing “tot he.” I actually have that set to autocorrect on my computer because it happens so frequently.

Above all, please take the time to consider what you are writing before you even set pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, and then when your task is completed, take the time to properly review it before sending it.  Chances are, if you come across as pretentious when you read it to yourself, your audience will also find you pretentious. Make the changes to your words to evoke the characteristics you want to bring to the forefront of your reader’s mind.  You will then come across as intelligent, approachable, and above all professional.

Ms. Polaski began her career as a receptionist in a small law firm in Norfolk, Virginia and gradually added more duties until she became a legal assistant and completed a paralegal certificate program at Old Dominion University in 1996.  Ms. Polaski earned her Bachelor of Science degree in 2003 from Excelsior College and her Master of Liberal Studies degree from Fort Hays State University in May 2015. In 2006, Ms. Polaski earned her Certified Paralegal (CP) credential from the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA), and the North Carolina Certified Paralegal (NCCP) credential from the North Carolina State Bar.   In 2011, Ms. Polaski launched her own freelance virtual paralegal business, Just A Paralegal Virtual Services, and continued her education, earning her Advanced Certification (ACP) from NALA in Social Security Disability in 2012, Child Custody and Visitation in 2013, and Trademark and Patent Law in 2015. If you wish to contact Ms. Polaski you can do so at justaparalegal@gmail.com.