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Lifting the Fog of Legalese: Essays on Plain Language.

Lifting the Fog of Legalese: Essays on Plain Language Joseph Kimble Carolina Academic Press 216 pp., $23

This is a dynamic collection of previously published columns by law professor and plain-English champion Joseph Kimble. More than mere essays about plain language, these columns provide sound guidelines and vivid demonstrations of how to master the art of producing clear, precise, and readable prose.

I must admit that at first I wondered whether busy trial attorneys were the right audience for this book. I assumed that a collection of columns wouldn't offer solid, practical advice about writing, and that most litigators gravitate toward legal writing books that will help them produce better, more effective documents as efficiently as possible. But a closer look revealed that, without a doubt, Lifting the Fog does just that.

Kimble, an occasional TRIAL columnist (two of the essays reprinted in the collection were first published in these pages), divides the book into two main parts. The first consists of seven essays grouped as "Arguments and Evidence." In this section, Kimble relentlessly makes the case for moving away from cumbersome and redundant legal writing and toward plain language--writing that is "simple, direct, and economical" without sacrificing precision or accuracy. A broad spectrum of lawyers, including law professors, practicing attorneys, and judges, have embraced this trend.

By comparing several types of traditional legal writing against their revised, plain-language cousins, Kimble demonstrates why. He uses before-and-after examples from several sources, such as procedural rules, short clauses commonly used in drafting, and judicial opinions.

For example, in "You Be the Judge," Kimble--a drafting consultant to the Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure of the Judicial Conference of the United States---lines up rules of procedure side-by-side with their restyled counterparts. The comparison is powerful; the results are compelling.

In "The Straight Skinny on Better Judicial Opinions," Kimble shares the results from a survey that asked 700 Michigan lawyers to choose between an opinion written in traditional legal style and a leaner, plain-English version. It's not a surprise that most lawyers preferred the pared-down version. In a follow-up column, Kimble pulls back the editorial curtain to show how he used fundamental principles of plain language to revise the original opinion and make it more appealing.

The second part of the book, "Some Advice and Some More Examples," is the section that I suspect most lawyers will find themselves returning to again and again. Several columns ("The Elements of Plain Language," "First Things First: The Lost Art of Summarizing," "A Modest Wish List for Legal Writing," and "Plain Words") could easily serve as editing checklists.

These pieces address everything from design (use ample white space, avoid using all capital letters) and organization, to sentence length and structure (keep the average length to 20 words, keep the subject near the verb) and word choice. If nothing else, the book offers the best argument for always preferring "before" to "prior to" that I've ever seen: "'Twas the night prior to Christmas ..."

Kimble adds two appendixes, one entertaining and one practical. His "Litany of Complaints" is a humorous compilation of comments on legal writing that stretches back to 16th-century King Edward VI of England. "A Plain-Language Bookshelf' is a list of style and usage manuals and other books on plain writing.

Kimble comes highly credentialed. He has taught legal writing at the Thomas M. Cooley Law School in Lansing, Michigan, for more than two decades. He is the editor-in-chief of The Scribes Journal of Legal Writing, a publication dedicated solely to "effective written legal communication," and serves as president of Clarity, an international organization devoted to plain language. For the past several years he has edited the "Plain Language" column of the Michigan Bar Journal, where many of these columns first appeared.

But the real endorsement for the plain-language movement comes from Kimble's own writing. He is a master of the craft. As a result, Lifting the Fog is highly readable, briskly paced, and enjoyable.

This book is a fine piece of advocacy in support of plain English. It is also a useful reference book, jam-packed with inspiration, solutions to common writing problems, tips, and examples. Consider it if your professional writing--or that of someone you know--could benefit from a tune-up.

SUSAN WAWROSE is professor of lawyering skills at the University of Dayton School of Law in Dayton, Ohio.
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Copyright 2006, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Wawrose, Susan
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jul 1, 2006
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