Monday, July 27, 2009

It Was a Dark and Stormy Night....

The 2009 winners of the Bulwer-Lytton fiction contest have been announced. As most of you probably know, contestants strive to write the worst opening sentence they can think of. The contest was inspired by Edward Bulwer-Lytton's Victorian novel Paul Clifford, which begins:

"It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness."

This year's winner is David McKenzie with this less-than-deathless prose:

"Folks say that if you listen real close at the height of the full moon, when the wind is blowin' off Nantucket Sound from the nor' east and the dogs are howlin' for no earthly reason, you can hear the awful screams of the crew of the "Ellie May," a sturdy whaler Captained by John McTavish; for it was on just such a night when the rum was flowin' and, Davey Jones be damned, big John brought his men on deck for the first of several screaming contests."

The successful (?) contestants have a tendency to cram as much extraneous information into a sentence as possible, such as Eric Rice’s winning entry for detective fiction:

"She walked into my office on legs as long as one of those long-legged birds that you see in Florida - the pink ones, not the white ones - except that she was standing on both of them, not just one of them, like those birds, the pink ones, and she wasn't wearing pink, but I knew right away that she was trouble, which those birds usually aren't." Reading these got me thinking that a lot of legal writing could be competitive in this contest. Lawyers love dense prose and infinite subclauses. Unfortunately, the reader tends to get lost, and misses the point the writer is trying to make.

I am a big fan of plain legal writing. It is not only more understandable, but more persuasive.

Rather than go on at length about using the active voice and excising unnecessary words, I thought I would simply point you to some good resources. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to find the first on-line. It's an article by (now) Mr. Justice Paul Perell of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice titled Written Advocacy. It was published in the Law Society of Upper Canada Gazette Vol. 27, No. 1 (March 1993). I have kept it lo these many years and periodically re-read it.

The United States Securities Exchange Commission has published an excellent Plain English Handbook. It not only covers writing style but also addresses document organization and set-up (including use of fonts and justification) and presentation of graphics, with the goal of making the document more reader-friendly. Given that Canadian commission also require plain English in filings such as prospectuses, it is a useful read for lawyers north of the border as well.

One of my favourite before-and-after examples from the SEC Handbook is the following:


Drakecorp has filed with the Internal Revenue Service a tax ruling request concerning, among other things, the tax consequences of the Distribution to the United States holders of Drakecorp Stock. It is expected that the Distribution of Beco Common Stock to the shareholders of Drakecorp will be tax-free to such shareholders for federal income tax purposes, except to the extent that cash is received for fractional share interests.


While we expect that this transaction will be tax free for U.S. shareholders at the federal level (except for any cash paid for fractional shares), we have asked the Internal Revenue Service to rule that it is.

There are a number of other good style guides out there. I like The Economist's.

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