Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Lessons Learned from Legal Writing

Sorry for the delay in posting, but I wanted to write about a seminar I attended on Monday, April 16, 2012. Bryan A. Garner, a U.S. lawyer, lexicographer, writer, chief editor for Black’s Law Dictionary, and founder and president of LawProse, Inc. http://lawprose.com, offers writing seminars for lawyers. If you are going to learn good writing skills, Bryan is someone you want teaching you.

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Good legal writing is just good writing. But law school teaches bad writing. There. I said it. It’s on the internet. It will never go away. Law school teaches you how to be a bad writer.

Readers can tell the writing’s quality within the first few sentences. Judges may only have a limited time to consider your case. Just like other writers, lawyers have to “hook” their audience (the judges) to obtain more judicial attention and pursuade. Below are a few of the principles I took away from the seminar that apply to all writing.

(1) The Best Writing is Clear and Concise.

Lawyers are enjoined to write clearly and briefly. But we often miss the point. Some fiction writers never climb out of that messy slush pile for the same reason. The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White mandates: “omit needless words.” But brevity doesn’t mean “make the story short.” It means use the best descriptive words possible without sacrificing clarity. If anyone can read– and the best legal briefs tell stories about real people and real consequences -, understand, and be moved by the story, the writing has done its job. To let the story shine, you need to follow Stephen King's advice in On Writing and “kill your darlings.” Mr. King and Bryan both say the same thing; ruthlessly parse your words.

“Well, then, what’s a needless word?” you ask.

To me, an unnecessary word is one you can strike or streamline without changing your meaning. Why say “they brought an adequate number of sleeping bags” when you can say “They brought enough sleeping bags?” I’ve removed three words from the sentence without changing the meaning.

“But wait, what if my quirky character is overly verbose?” you challenge.

That character’s dialog and point of view only can use grandiose terminology. Everyone else should speak like a real person and not a thesaurus.

(2) Good Writing Builds on Resonance.

Lawyers are taught that they should make their argument three times. And it works. Well, sort of. Your writing has a theme. It should be reinforced throughout the narrative without being repetitive. David Farland, writer of the Runelords series and frequent lecturer on fiction writing technique, talks extensively on building resonance in fiction so I won't elaborate here.

(3) You Must Use The Space "Above The Fold" Well.

Use the "above the fold" space to connect with your reader - whether a judge or a novel reader. Journalists strive for placement of their articles “above the fold” meaning, literally, the space on the front page under the paper’s name when the paper is face up i.e. above where the paper is folded. For the internet the space the reader can see without scrolling is “above the fold”. In a novel or legal brief, your first two hundred and fifty words are often all that shows on that all important first page. You must use that precious space to build credibility in your writing and storytelling abilities to convince the reader to turn the page.

An advocate needs to be the first to make an impression on the judge. Bryan’s “tell the reader why you win up front” sounds a lot like “hook your reader on page one.” Why? Because the “above the fold” maxim holds true for all forms of writing.

As a writer, you must hook your readers. Generous readers may give you a page to accomplish this, but more likely you only have the first few lines. A good opening paragraph introduces a character and gives some flavor of the work to come. In your first paragraph, you make a promise to your reader about what’s to come. Do this well and the reader will turn the page to read on.

(4) The Story Must Be Compelling.

A compelling story is interesting with a precise wording, vivid descriptions, a clear plot line, and active characters. Does that sound like another way of phrasing “show, don’t tell”? It should.

(5) Third Party Feedback Is Necessary To Determine If You Are Writing Effectively.

As a final point, most of us are too close to our words to edit effectively. While familiarity might not breed contempt, it does breed blindness. We sometimes forget to put necessary information in the prose because we’re so familiar with it. If you have to explain to someone reading the work for the first time, you’ve left something out. You can only figure out if you are "missing" something by letting someone else read what you've written.

No manuscript should be sent to the final decision maker (whether judge, agent, publisher or editor) without others reviewing it first. I've written on this blog before about editing, and the process is invaluable. If you can take ego out of the process (and it’s hard), you’ll find that the feedback helps you clarify and deepen your writing.

If you have the opportunity to hear Bryan Garner speak on writing, take advantage of it. Take your writing lessons where you find them because at the heart, all good writing follows the same dictates.

Write the cleanest, clearest and most compelling prose you can. If you follow these directives in all your writing, the maxims become second nature. Your writing will improve, and people will want to read your story.


Clancy said...

NAncy, Great post. I really enjoyed what you said and couldn't agree more! I especially liked what you said about not writing like a thesaurus - I see that more than I'd like to.

Mary S. Palmer said...

I'll remember "above the fold" because it's a catchy phrase. Funny how we know these things but get so caught up that we have to be reminded.
Great advice.

Mary S. Palmer

Unknown said...

Nice post! Becoming a planner has helped undo some of my bad habits. I've always used a summary (i.e., above the fold) to let the reader know what (I think) is important. You hit the nail with stressing the "story." Jeannine