For more than 20 years, point-first writing has been touted as one of the most powerful legal writing techniques. But, what does it really mean to write point first—and why should you do it?
Legal writing contains a lot of detailed information. As readers, detailed information is easiest for us to absorb, understand, and retain when we first know why that information matters and how it's relevant. When presented with a lot of details before knowing why those details matter, we tend to skim and skip, and may even stop reading altogether.
So, if you want readers to understand and remember specific details, you should first provide them with context, then explain the point of the details. These two concepts are often referred to together as "point-first writing" or "context before details." Context and point answer the two questions uppermost in all readers’ minds when they read: “Why are you telling me this?” (context); and “What are you telling me?” (point).
While it might not be appropriate to write point first in all cases, you should always provide context before details. Context primes readers about what to look for as they read. When documents, sections, and paragraphs start by telling readers what’s important, they’ll look for that information as they read. When that information is presented later, they’ll quickly and easily understand it. Failing to provide context before details is like giving readers the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle and asking them to fit the pieces together without showing them a picture of the completed puzzle.
Using context and point to make your writing easier to read and understand
Here are a few ways to use context and point to help entice your readers to want to read, and keep reading, the documents you've worked so hard to write.
Start with an overview
One of the best ways to provide context is to start your documents with a brief section that answers readers’ most pressing question: “What’s this document about?” This type of opening section is typically referred to as an “overview.” Effective overviews orient readers by establishing a document’s overall structure, suggesting what's important, and highlighting what readers should pay attention to. An overview is arguably the most important part of a document because it provides context for the document as a whole.
While the main purpose of an overview is to help readers grasp complex information before that information begins to flow, writing an overview also focuses writers on the questions they need to answer and helps control how readers read.
Adopt a clear structure focused on the issues
The first thing most readers look for is the organizational structure of a document. Readers bombarded with a jumble of thoughts and impressions often stop reading. Because issues provide context for legal analysis, you should consider using them to drive the structure of most of your documents.
Documents structured around the issues are more readable and easier to understand because related pieces of information are kept close together. Creating an issue-driven structure also helps keep writers focused; and encourages clearer and more concise writing, especially in multi-issue cases.
Include roadmaps throughout
To facilitate easy navigation within your documents, consider adding a roadmap any time you’re about to present readers with a lot of detailed information. Roadmaps are particularly useful at the beginning of substantive and analytical sections to outline the steps of an upcoming analysis, tell readers where to focus their attention, or otherwise set the stage for what follows. And because readers will then know what to expect as they read, the text that follows will be much easier for them to read and understand. To be most effective, though, roadmaps should provide some content or direction, rather than simply list the steps of an upcoming discussion.
In addition to providing useful context for readers, roadmaps help writers identify gaps in their analysis. For example, if you’re struggling to create a roadmap, you’re probably missing an analytical step. And if you can’t identify the origin and destination of each point in your analysis, you probably need a roadmap.
Announce the purpose of each paragraph in the opening sentence
Most of your readers are impatient and tend to skim documents, especially if they’re reading online. Announcing the purpose of each paragraph in the opening sentence helps readers skim productively and makes writing easier to read. When readers know why they’re reading each paragraph in the opening sentence, they’ll be able to understand the gist of the entire document by reading only those sentences. And using only those sentences to create a “reverse outline” is a great way for writers to test a document’s overall organization.
Introduce each block quotation with a framing sentence
Block quotations are rarely read from beginning to end. Readers can be enticed to read a block quotation, however, if it’s introduced with a contextual sentence that paraphrases the key point of the quote. After adding this framing sentence, writers often discover that they can either shorten the quotation or delete it altogether.
Use generic transitions effectively
Transitions are like the physical cues you give when you talk—hand gestures, raised eyebrows, tone of voice. They signal to readers what’s to come, why they should pay attention, and how they should react to your ideas. Without effective transitions, readers have to work hard to make connections between ideas or may simply become confused. Worse, readers may draw conclusions you didn’t intend.
As useful as transitions are, you don't want to use too many generic transitions like "however" and "therefore" because readers will end up paying more attention to the transition words than the ideas they're supposed to be connecting. A great exercise to help reduce the number of generic transitions in your writing is to: (1) highlight all of the generic transitions used in a particular document; (2) make note of the number of generic transitions used and how often you used each one; then (3) write your next document without using any generic transitions.
Add descriptive headings
Descriptive headings, like structural headings, signal the overall organization of a document by marking logical divisions in the text, and provide a welcome break from blocks of text. Unlike structural headings, though, descriptive headings do more than name a section; and they aren’t dictated by the type of document you’re writing. Rather, descriptive headings provide useful contextual information by describing the content of the section that follows, or by asking questions that the section answers. Descriptive headings also offer a quick overview of a document, keep readers on track, and help readers find information easily.
Like most context-before-detail techniques, descriptive headings help writers as well as readers. For example, if you’re having trouble deciding where to include descriptive headings in a document, it may be a sign that the document is poorly organized.
An added benefit of using context and point
Using context and point helps readers grasp what they’re about to read before they read it, making them feel smart. And when your readers feel smart, they’ll have more confidence in your analysis, advice, and recommendations.
About the author
Shelley Appleby-Ostroff is a legal writing coach, talent development consultant, and podcast host: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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