Real Property Law

Persuasive Writing: Sentence Structure©

By Michael J. Simkin, Esq.

Successful persuasive writing involves consideration of both the substance of your legal argument and of sentence-level writing techniques. There are several methods available to focus your reader’s attention so they accept your argument. These tips range from focusing or limiting the amount of information in a sentence, to overarching tonal shifts.  

Quick Tips

  1. Keep your legal theory subtle. The court or jury will focus on the facts. Use the law as a guide for your audience. If you focus too much on a narrow element of the law, your opposition may find a contradictory law or a way to distinguish it, making your argument fail. Try not to make your theory too constricting. Flexibility will also make it difficult for your opposition to box you in and cut off your ability to add additional facts or argument.   
  2. Be cautious of how much space you spend per subject. Your audience will assume that the more writing devoted to an issue, the greater its importance. Every case boils down to a few key facts or arguments. Keep the conclusion you want the reader to make the focus of your writing.  
  3. Vary Sentence Length. Short, punchy sentences can make certain ideas more obvious. Long sentences can de-emphasize information. Depending on your goal, shorter or longer sentences can also help with the pacing of events and support your conclusion. Both shorter and longer sentences have a purpose in writing. Be cognizant of the feel or impact you want on the reader.  

    Short sentences illustrate quick pacing and actions. 
    Ex: The victim fled the scene. The defendant followed her. He caught her in an alleyway. He stabbed her. She died.   

    Long sentences can convey slower pacing and a lengthier ordeal.  
    Ex: The victim fled the scene and sought refuge in an alleyway, while the defendant followed her. Once he found her, he took out his knife and stabbed her. 
  4. Use Positive Language. If you begin with a negative tone, you risk sounding defensive and the reader skipping over what you write. Below are two examples from the Georgetown University Writing Center.  

    Negative Tone  
    Example: The defense argues that the plaintiff gave no warning. This is not the case, however, because the plaintiff left messages on the defendant’s answering machine on two occasions.  

    Positive Tone 
    Example: The plaintiff gave adequate warning; she called the defendant repeatedly and left messages on his answering machine on two occasions. 
  5. Be mindful of how much descriptive language you use. Too much may damage your credibility. Limit adverbs like ‘obviously’ or ‘clearly’ as they can slow your argument down and lack substance. Let the reader make the desired conclusion from the argument. 
  6. Note On Language: Plain language makes your argument more powerful and less likely to be misconstrued.  
    Example: His failure to conform with the agreement was a breach of the covenant. 

    Example: He did not perform the agreement. 

Fact-Based Persuasive Techniques

People are persuaded by facts. In persuasive writing, you must provide the reader with facts. That said, depending on your goal, you may want to emphasize or de-emphasize certain facts. Focus on facts that develop your arguments.  

Below is a chart of common sentence level techniques.  

Emphasize FactsDe-Emphasize Facts
First or Last 
Put strong information at the beginning or end of the sentence (or paragraph) to put more emphasis on it.  
Ex: Despite the grievances between the plaintiff and defendant, Civil Code §1946.1 requires a 30 day notice to terminate the tenancy.   
Bury the Middle 
Information placed in the middle of the sentence/paragraph is more likely to be gazed over or forgotten. 
Ex: Despite the plaintiff and defendant’s disagreements, Civil Code §1946.1 requires a 30 day notice to terminate regardless of how tense relations may be between the parties to the rental agreement. 
Grouped Facts 
When facts are grouped together, their combined visual space leaves a stronger impact on the reader. 
Ex: The lack of written notice, the landlord’s pattern to not communicate, the landlord not being on the premises, landlord purportedly serving the termination notice when he knew the tenant was out of the country, demonstrate the plaintiff’s intention to surprise the defendant of the termination of the tenancy. 
Scattering the facts throughout the paragraph puts space between them, making the facts easier to forget and harder to connect. 
Ex. The landlord argues the tenancy terminated but the landlord’s attorney argues failure to communicate is not a factor, but Civil Code §1946.1 requires written notice which no proof has been provided and it is undisputed the landlord knew the tenant was not at the property even though he paid rent. 
A long, detailed description of facts is more likely to leave a lasting impact on the reader. 
Ex. Plaintiff sent seven emails to the Defendant asking when will Plaintiff receive the product. Defendant never replied.  
A short summary omitting facts will leave a less impactful understanding of issue. 
Ex. Defendant never told Plaintiff when Plaintiff will receive the product.  
Vivid Descriptions/Verbs 
Vivid descriptions paint a stronger picture in the reader’s head and helps them visualize the facts. 
Ex. The wound left by the defendant’s dog was jagged and bloody
Ex: The plaintiff disfigured the defendant. 
General Descriptions/Verbs 
General descriptions will weaken the imagery and leave a lesser impact.  
Ex. The dog left a deep wound. 
Ex. The plaintiff marked the defendant. 
Active Voice 
Active voice emphasizes the subjects and actions in the sentence. Active sentences tend to be shorter and more direct. 
Ex: The plaintiff did not agree to settle. 
Passive Voice 
Passive voice de-emphasizes the subjects and action. Passive sentences tend to be longer and less direct. 
Ex: The settlement was not agreed to by the plaintiff. 
Independent Clause 
The independent clause is the part of the sentence that can stand on its own (Michael ran home because he was late). Important information is kept in this part of the sentence.  
Ex: The plaintiff was wrong because he signed the contract.  
Dependent Clause 
The dependent clause is the part of the sentence that requires the independent clause to function as a sentence (Michael ran home because he was late). Typically, secondary information is kept in this part of the sentence, as it is visibly less important than the information in the independent clause. 
Ex. He signed the contract, so he was wrong

Note: You should use a combination of emphasis and de-emphasis techniques throughout your argument. 

Further Reading: 

This document by Georgetown University Law School’s Writing Center highlights many elements of persuasive legal writing and includes many examples. 

This article by Ted Pelletier for Plaintiff Magazine explains how persuasive writing involves guiding the reader. 

This PowerPoint by Legal Services of Central New York takes you through the steps of persuasive writing. 

This document by Indiana University Law School gives overall tips to legal writing, including a description of good and bad writing. 

Bio of Michael J. Simkin, Esq.  Admitted in California, New York and the Law Society of Ontario Canada

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