Ten Rules for Dispute Resolution Writing

Associate Matti Tyynysniemi left his previous career as a journalist to join Hannes Snellman’s Dispute Resolution team in 2014. Below, you will find Matti’s ten rules for writing, drawing from both careers. The context here is mostly written advocacy, but the advice is meant to have broad application.

  1. Think about your audience. When you are trying to convince an arbitrator or a judge, ask yourself whether a particular part of your text actually helps with that goal. If not, you need a very good reason to include it. Keep in mind whom you are writing for and what you want to achieve.
  2. Tell a good story. Your text should be something they want to read, not something they have to read because it’s their job. Set the narrative and create an image of what the case really is about.
  3. Less is more. Attention spans are limited. No matter how senior the arbitrator, they will not enjoy reading endless jargon. Each new thing you add contributes to drowning out your most important points. And make sure your weakest argument does not undermine your best ones. Know what to leave out and have the guts to do it.
  4. Don’t dilute your message. “This is completely irrelevant” tends to sound weaker than “this is irrelevant”. Short sentences and plain words are convincing. If you emphasise everything, you emphasise nothing. Don’t exhaust the reader with endless adjectives.
  5. Start with the important. Your main point on page 27 is useless if you lost the reader on page 7. Make your case as soon as you can. A summary is more important in the beginning than in the end. And if you need to build up to something, let them know it’s coming.
  6. Weed out the irrelevant. For each word and sentence, consider whether it could be removed with no effect on the meaning; there’s usually plenty you can take out for no cost. Replace long words with shorter ones with the same meaning.
  7. Don’t overestimate what people know or remember. It may be clear to you why a particular issue is being discussed just now, but it’s often a good idea to tell or remind the reader. Just don’t breach the other nine rules when doing so.
  8. Don’t underestimate what people understand. An argument is often like a joke. If you think you have to spell out what is funny, are you about to ruin the reader’s enjoyment of an otherwise good joke, or do you just need better jokes?
  9. If you are trying to say something, make sure you say it. In a seeming (but not actual) contradiction to the previous rule, don’t accidentally leave your conclusion between the lines. When making a point, ask yourself “So what?” until you find the point you are actually trying to make.
  10. Would your grandmother understand? Or the eighth-grader, or the similar lay person? If your explanation would be lost on someone from the street, maybe you should work on it before submitting it to your expert audience.