Get to the Point

A short primer on what is called ‘point first’ writing.

You might be tempted to keep your reader in suspense about your conclusion or even the very subject of your blog post or client update, but that would be a mistake – you aren’t aiming to write a mystery novel or a cliff-hanging thriller.

Like most people, your client is busy and has a short attention span – so get to the point.

Point-first writing is also effective in memos, factums and letters.

Start with your conclusion and then explain how you got there. Begin by expressing the general rule, and then explain the exceptions. Open with the general, then give the specifics.

This will tell the reader what your piece is about, up front. He or she can then decide to read on, in order to get the details or the nuances. The reader can also decide to come back to your piece later (or not at all).

A clear sense of direction right from the opening line guides the reader: the last thing you want to do is force the reader to ask, ‘What’s this all about and where is it going?’

It’s also helpful to wrap up at the end with a restatement of your general point, to make sure the reader hasn’t lost the plot in the mean time.

It’s hard to improve on what Justice Laskin of the Ontario Court of Appeal has to say in Forget the Wind-up and Make the Pitch:

Of all of my suggestions, I consider point-first writing the most important. Point first writing, more than anything else, will improve the clarity and persuasive of your writing.

State your point or proposition before you develop or discuss it. Do not write your factum like a mystery novel in which the conclusion is revealed only in the final paragraph, if at all. In other words, give the context before discussing the details. Indeed, point first writing puts into practice the principle of context before details. Point first writing should be used throughout your factum, both in the facts part and in the law part, and within those parts, in every section and in every paragraph. Whenever you are about to dump detail on the reader, give the reader the point of the detail first.

We see far too many factums that contain long meandering paragraphs, in which the point of each paragraph is never stated, or almost as bad, is stated three paragraphs later. This is not reader-friendly advocacy. You can fix this problem in these ways. At the beginning of the paragraph, tell the reader what topic or idea you are going to discuss in the rest of the paragraph. Try to restrict each paragraph to one main idea or topic. Then, in the first sentence or two of each paragraph, articulate the point of the paragraph, usually your conclusion or submission on the issue. The remainder of the paragraph will discuss the submission, elaborate on it, support it, or qualify it. This is point first writing.

Unfortunately, too many factums contain either point-last writing or no-point-at-all-writing.

Equally applicable to other kinds of legal writing.

To recapitulate: point first; explain; conclude.

Next time: phrases we love to misuse

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)

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