, ,


I came across a simple but powerful piece of advice on writing from a rather unexpected source — Supreme Court justice, Clarence Thomas.

In a recent Q&A with Harvard Law students, he admitted that “We write them [court opinions] in a way that they’re inaccessible to the average person.” Thomas then went on to explain the proces he encourages among his clerks:

“What I tell my law clerks is that we write these so that they are accessible to regular people. That doesn’t mean that there’s no law in it. But there are simple ways to put important things in language that’s accessible. As I say to them, the beauty, the genius is not to write a 5 cent idea in a ten dollar sentence. It’s to put a ten dollar idea in a 5 cent sentence. That’s beauty. That’s editing. That’s writing.

“The editing we do is for clarity and simplicity without losing meaning, and without adding things. You don’t see a lot of double entendres, you don’t see word play and cuteness. We’re not there to win a literary award. We’re there to write opinions that some busy person or somebody at their kitchen table can read and say, ‘I don’t agree with a word he said, but I understand what he said.’ “

When pressed by a legal scholar as to why his opinions were 25% than his colleagues, Thomas replied, “Editing, editing, editing. We do a lot of editing, and it’s very aggressive. We eliminate a lot of trivial nonsense. And I do not like cuteness in my opinions. You save that for your own stuff. It is all meat and potatoes.”

Put a $10 idea in a 5¢ sentence. Great advice for writers. We write to be understood.

(HT: The Atlantic)