Evan has captured the imagination of the legal blogging world with his recent series of posts on improving your legal writing. His posts prompted me to jot down a few lessons I’ve learned (I think) about writing over my now slightly over twenty year legal career.
1. Know Your Subject Matter. I find most muddled writing in places where the writer does not fully understand their subject. It’s no different from when you are asked a question about a point about which you are uncertain. You stammer, start to use jargon, reach for more polysyllabic words, ramble around in circumlocutions, and generally try to change the subject. The same phenomenon happens in writing. Take a close look at something you wrote on a subject that you know very well. Then take a look at something you wrote where you didn’t really understand your subject. Notice the difference. Try to write in the former style more often.
2. Write with the Action You Want to Obtain Firmly in Mind. What do you want your reader to do after they read what you have written? It’s endlessly surprising how often lawyers, whose job, after all, is to persuade people, forget this point. Read what you have written and when you finish, ask yourself, “so what?” Focus on the action you want your reader to take in response to your writing. Then go back and edit, remove and rearrange what you have written so that your revised draft leads the read to the desired action. It is hard to convince a reader to do what you want even if you write clearly, but it is impossible when your reader has to try to figure out what action you want.
3. Put Yourself in the Place of Your Reader. Remember that your reader is at least as tired, distracted and unable to concentrate as you are. You want to write in a way that anticipates that state of mind. What is your reaction to receiving a ten-page, single-spaced letter with no headings, bullet points or executive summary? Why do you expect your reader to have any different reaction? Do you like section headings, numbered points, short paragraphs, executive summaries, a one-paragraph conclusion at the end or other reader-friendly techniques? Lots of other people do too. Do not forget that your writing is meant to be read by another human. Make it easy for them to do so.
4. Write in Your Own Voice. Many lawyers spend the early part of their careers learning how to write for one or more partners. Other lawyers tend to write in ways that they think that lawyers should write. In each case, they are not writing in their own voice. Writing clearly in your own voice is difficult enough. You may not be able to avoid writing for your supervising lawyer, but avoid making your life harder and your writing even less clear by pretending to be someone else when you write. Reading aloud what you write is a great exercise to help you develop your voice.
5. Copy Your Best. I have interviewed hundreds of law students in the law firm hiring process. I tried to learn a few lessons from this experience. In fact, as some of the people I have “coached” on interview skills will tell you, I learned quite a few lessons. Here is an important one. If a candidate becomes convinced during the interview that he or she really wants the job, their demeanor, approach and even posture change radically. It is quite striking. Interestingly, whether or not you are interested in the job, you can easily mimic this response in any interview that you have and your likelihood of success increases greatly. Is it “fair” to do this? I will leave that question for you, but there is no reason not to take a similar approach to your writing. Find examples of your best writing – the ones that got you the results that you wanted – and study them. For example, compare how you wrote a slam-dunk winner of an argument to how you wrote a sure-fire loser. Then start to copy your best and most persuasive writing, even in places where you don’t have your best and most persuasive arguments.
6. Realize that It’s a Journey, Not a Destination. There is always room to improve and lessons to learn. The goal is to write in the best way for your audience to understand and respond in the way that you want. Be open to hear constructive criticism and make adjustments that further this goal. In most cases, criticism of your written work is not criticism of you. There are many roads to this goal, but a long way to travel. Take it one step at a time.
Dennis Kennedy maintains DennisKennedy.Blog and is a co-founder of The Blawg Channel. He has hundreds of publications on legal and technology topics, but still is envious of Evan because Evan has clearly established himself as the funniest legal blogger. Dennis both practices computer law and consults on legal technology issues and, like Evan, is based in the St. Louis metropolitan area. Although Evan and Dennis have talked about having lunch or meeting in person for quite a long time, this guest post is as close as they have been able to get together, since, as most lawyers do, they are each trying to convince the other how busy they are.