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Effective written communication: structure and tone

In this article we analyse tone and structure when drafting a letter of advice.

Effective written communication identifies problems, defines goals, arrives at solutions and persuades the reader. Word choice and sentence and paragraph structure and order are critical for written communication to be clear and effective.

Effective written communication: • creates a positive tone and relationship between the writer and reader; • appropriately addresses the audience and is clear and easy to understand; • clearly conveys its reason or purpose; • is concise and unambiguous; and • uses proper language, correct tone and appropriate grammar. Mastery of critical analytic skills and legal knowledge is not enough to produce effective written communication. Effective written communication requires an understanding of human nature, which will enable you to convey your message with meaning and to influence the reader’s responses. In legal practice, it is essential to establish rapport through writing as there is often no opportunity to meet with clients in person. Digital technology has changed the way people read and process information. It is critical that you write so that your message is accessible to the reader. Readers prefer clear headings, adequate white space, short paragraphs or bullet points, and well-placed keywords. Effective written communication builds trust between the writer and the reader, which is essential to the practice of law. As a lawyer, while you do not have to say everything, everything you say must be clear and easily understood.

For successful legal writing, you must develop a critical mindset and be mindful of the overall objective or purpose of the writing task. Good legal writing requires thorough planning, clarity, patience, revision, attention to detail, and continuous practice. Tone The tone of your correspondence depends on the purpose of the writing and the person to whom you are writing. While you may vary the formality of your tone depending on the circumstances, your correspondence should be professional. It should never be rude, offensive, sarcastic or unnecessarily aggressive. Correspondence drafted in an unprofessional manner will reflect negatively on you and your law practice, and may damage your client’s interests. One of the key features of correspondence is its relative permanence, especially in a digital world. Take care in the words you use and how you use them, to ensure precision and avoid misunderstanding.

Structure You must tailor the structure of your correspondence to improve its readability and clarity. The structure will differ depending on the reader, purpose and context of the correspondence. Using numbered paragraphs is a common structure. A logical and consistent numbering system can make it easier for the reader to refer to if they wish to discuss the contents with you. When advising clients, ascertain whether your client wants a short summary or a full academic explanation. It is generally not appropriate to include references and cases in a letter to your client, but always consider the reader and the context when preparing your advice. You may need to alter the structure of your advice if you are writing to your client’s in-house counsel who may prefer to make their own enquiries. If you are replying to queries, it is advisable to follow the order of the queries and adopt the numbering used in the original correspondence.

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