“The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do.”
Thomas Jefferson’s advice on concise writing is lost on many lawyers, who seem to have a special talent for using 10 words when one will do. Ruthless editing helps produce powerful writing, but for attorneys, Strunk & White's prescription to “omit needless words” can be easier said than done. Sometimes, all that legalese is serving a purpose, but often, one too many "heretofore"s obscures a vital point.
Even skilled writers can find it difficult to edit their own writing, and a fresh set of eyes is not always available. WordRake can help.
WordRake is editing software that functions as an extension for Microsoft Word and Outlook. The user selects a block of text and clicks the Rake button. The software then makes suggestions by crossing out a phrase and offering an alternative. The user can run through the document fairly quickly by pressing Accept or Reject buttons.
Even talented writers who value concision are sometimes prone to violate Jefferson's maxim, and they may be surprised by the superfluous phrases WordRake finds in their prose. Consider these typical lines of legalese.
Here are the lines again after a click of the Rake button.
And here they are after accepting the changes.
In this case, the text is made shorter and clearer. But that does not mean that WordRake is a magic “make my writing better” button. The company offers several caveats. First, the software does not check spelling or grammar. (Microsoft Word already has those functions anyway.) And the company freely admits that the software is no substitute for human intelligence. By design, there is no Accept All button; each suggestion must be reviewed by the user.
Careful review of WordRake’s suggestions is indeed a necessity, as the software is not very refined. In some contexts, the suggestions would render a sentence nonsensical; in others, they would alter the meaning from the intent. The software appears to work from a database of wordy or legalistic phrases that are often unnecessary, but users must decide for themselves in each instance. Even when one of WordRake’s suggestions cannot be accepted as given, it may still suggest a more elegant way to reword the sentence.
Here are a few examples of cumbersome phrases and WordRake’s suggestions:
in accordance with
one year from the date of completion
only applicable to the extent that
it is hereby agreed
according to the provisions of the contract
be sure to respond in a timely manner
the rule states as follows
one year from completion
only applicable if
it is agreed according to the contract
respond in a timely manner
the rule states
Of course, good writers have their own mental databases of phrases and words to avoid, but errors still slip in, and WordRake can be useful in catching them. But just as writers cannot blindly follow the recommendations of a spelling or grammar checking tool, WordRake also requires human intelligence. Sometimes a sentence is plainly improved by nixing a certain phrase, and other times, the choice is a stylistic judgment call.
And, of course, sometimes the legalese is supposed to be there. When applied to a legal document, WordRake may suggest removing phrases such as “in the instant case” or “in pertinent part,” that an attorney may wish to include for good reason. Phrases like “for example” and “it is true that” may be necessary for clarity in some cases, even if WordRake suggests omitting them.
WordRake aims to improve clarity and brevity, two qualities sorely needed in much legal writing. However, there are other types of lawyer-speak that WordRake cannot help with, such as overuse of the passive voice. WordRake has no suggestions to improve the sentence, “The filing deadline was missed.” Of course, depending on who missed that deadline, the author of that sentence may have been using the passive voice on purpose. Most attorneys are aware that the active voice assigns responsibility, and is therefore vital in a document such as a complaint. However, in other types of legal writing, the passive voice slips in where it does not belong. WordRake will suggest excising the legalese, but it cannot restructure sentences.
WordRake is offered on a subscription basis, starting at $129 per user, per year. Whether WordRake is useful to an individual attorney, legal writer or firm will likely hinge on whether the time spent on the task of going through a document to accept or reject changes is worth the few gems unearthed.
In my estimation, WordRake has great potential and lots of room for improvement. I applied the tool to several documents, from court opinions to correspondence, and I found that about 90 percent of WordRake’s suggestions had to be rejected for various reasons. Yes, there were a few suggestions in each document that definitely improved the writing, but nothing earth-shattering, and weeding out all the false positives does take time. With a few tweaks of its algorithm, WordRake could become an indispensable product. Still, the company offers a 30-day free trial, so there is no reason for attorneys not to experiment with it in the meantime.