4 to 6-minute read (depending on how many times you re-read it), 15-minute exercise
Can you guess what this article is about? It’s all about using fewer words when drafting documents.
That’s right. Using too many words is often well-intentioned but not needed. Using fewer words in your documents is generally more effective.
If you’re lucky enough, the reader of your last document will be someone who has an incredibly wonderful gift for dissecting information from your longest sentences (without offending readers who do not have a gift for dissecting information and acknowledging the additional challenges they may or may not face) and then you won’t need to worry about using fewer words because the person reading a sentence like this will finish reading it and gain a sense of achievement for accomplishing such an arduous task. Using too many words can make the meaning of your documents unclear.
If your documents are very long, there is a good chance that your clients won’t be bothered reading every page. They’ll get stored with all the other important things that are too important to get rid of but too difficult to open and use. One day, something will go wrong and instead of referring to a specific document, your client will come back to you to solve the problem. That’s really great if you still use the billable hours model and need to charge for every 6 minutes you think about your client’s matter. It’s not so great when you are trying to provide documents that are effective and valuable to your clients.
Finally, using too many words just leads to wasted time and resources. It’s a waste of your time to draft longer documents and it’s a waste of the reader’s time to read them, and often re-read them, just to try and guess the meaning. Not to mention the number of trees that would have been wasted if the documents are printed, again and again. If your documents can be effective in 20 pages rather than 30 pages, please only draft 20 pages.
Drafting Long Documents Is Not Your Fault
It’s a habit that was drilled into us as early years lawyers. We’ve drafted so many documents over the years that this way of working has become our normal. Just because it’s a normal way of drafting doesn’t mean it effective.
It’s safe to say that most of us were trained in the billable hours model of work. The more time we spent on a task, the higher the fee we could charge our client. If our client came back to us to read and interpret a document whenever they encountered an issue, we could charge for that. And also charge for the time spent solving the issue. It was a bonus that so many other lawyers also drafted long documents because we could charge for the extra time it took to read and become familiar with their document and to guess what all those wonderful words meant. That was really great for building up billable hours. But it is not so great in your practice now if your intention is to create an effective document that your client could actually use to read and apply themselves.
Many of us also have an internal need to draft documents that appear to be perfect. We generally relied on certain personality traits to progress through the workload of law school and early years as a lawyer. It’s that need to get things just right and to avoid risks. Except that when it comes to drafting documents, it appears as a need to draft long wordy documents with clauses that cover every factual scenario that we envisage. Rather than drafting clauses that might be a bit more general, we tend to include many detailed clauses and end up with documents where many of the clauses will never even be used.
How Can You Draft Documents with Fewer Words?
You’ll need to be mindful of using fewer words when drafting. It’ll be tough but you need to get past the habits you were trained within the billable hours model. Try adding a new step in your drafting process to review each of your documents and reduce the number of words. You’ll become better at this over time.
Work on accepting that your documents cannot possibly cover every possible scenario. The harsh fact is that in the future your documents will need to handle factual scenarios that you may not have even be thought of now. It is much better to have clauses that are adaptable and are general enough to handle these situations than constantly worry whether the meaning of the words in your document can be twisted to include these situations. Why not use subjective triggers, such as a party sending a notice to another party if a situation arises the document does not contemplate that and set a process for the parties to manage that situation before a dispute occurs? These subjective triggers would work well alongside objective events that you can foresee as possible events.
You also need to become comfortable with using fewer words to make the meaning clearer. Break the sentences up. Use once process per clause. If you’re not sure if the meaning is clear, give an example. Documents are much more effective for clients when all parties are confident in reading and using the document to manage their contractual arrangement. If clauses are too long, they are difficult to read and apply. If clauses are shorter and provide examples where needed, they are so much easier to follow.
15 Minutes to Cut Down Some Words
Spend the next 15 minutes getting a start on using fewer words in your documents. Open up the last document you were drafting and go to the longest clause. In a separate document or on a notepad, write down one or two sentences to explain in lay terms what the clause means. If it’s a difficult clause, also give a simple example.
Now rework the clause using fewer words. You already have the meaning and an example to work with. You’ll probably need to draft new words rather than just deleting some words, but the mechanics of the clause would probably be the same.
How did you go? See how much more effective the clause is now? Try to draft with fewer words in every new document you work on. You’ll see fantastic improvements over time.
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