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Becoming a Better Legal Writer

By Alexander T. MacDonald

 

We’ve all been there: Your work has just come back from your supervisor, and it’s awash in red ink. As you look through the corrections, your stomach begins to tighten. Some of the edits you can write off as “stylistic” preferences, but others reflect real problems with your writing. You used to think you were a good writer, but now you’re not so sure. You know you have to get better, but you don’t know how.

 

Don’t despair. No matter how good a writer you are now or how long you’ve been practicing law, you can always improve your legal writing. All it takes is a little focus and a pinch of preservation.

 

The first thing you have to do is read. Reading is a precondition to writing. There are no good writers who do not read. So if you’re not reading—a lot—you need to start. And you need to be picky about what you read. While reading anything is better than reading nothing, reading nothing isn’t a problem most lawyers have: absorbing piles and piles of documents is a professional hazard. So if becoming a better writer were just a matter of plowing through gobs of text, every lawyer would write like Jonathan Franzen, and every brief would read like the King James Bible. But alas, there’s more to the trick. You don’t just have to read a lot of writing; you have to read a lot of good writing.

 

Luckily, good writing is easier to find than ever. Dozens of first-rate periodicals are only a mouse-click away: The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and The Economist are all available online for pennies per issue. If you’d rather stick with legal writing, subscribe to The Green Bag. Whichever of these publications you choose, you won’t go wrong. The more your writing sounds like what you find between their covers, the better it will be.

 

But even just reading good writing isn’t enough. If you want to truly excel as a writer, you must read carefully. When you come across a piece of writing that strikes you, ask yourself why you like it. Pay attention to how the writer uses transitions, syntax, and word choice. Think about how you could employ the same tricks in your own writing. On the slip side, when you find yourself struggling to finish something, ask yourself why. Is the writer’s diction overinflated? Is she using too many flat verbs? Has she organized the piece illogically? Spotting these faults in others’ writing will help you avoid them in your own.

 

You’ll be able to spot (and diagnose) these problems more efficiently if you also read a few books on writing technique. These shouldn’t be grammar books, mind you; good writing is about more than knowing the difference between a compound and a complex sentence. Instead, you should look for books about writing style. A good place to start (or re-start) is William Strunk and E.B. White’s classic, The Elements of Style. It’s nearly 100 years old now, and in some places, it’s starting to show its age. (For example, even the most recent edition objects to hopefully as a sentence adverb.) But it’s still your best bet for pithy advice on brightening your prose. And at 105 pages, it’s short enough to read in few hours. You won’t find many more profitable ways to spend an afternoon.  

 

You should also familiarize yourself with a few good usage and style guides. For legal writing, the standard bearers are Modern English Usage, Modern Legal Usage, and the Redbook—all by Bryan Garner. (If you’re not familiar with Garner’s work, you should become so. Quickly.) It’s also worth keeping your bookshelf stocked with a copy of the Chicago Manual of Style. It can answer any niggling style questions that may not bother your legal audience, but will stand out to your lay readers.

 

Studying these books will help you in the long run, but if you’re looking for immediate improvement, there’s only one surefire trick: read your writing aloud. Nothing else will boost your writing more dramatically. You’ll immediately spot sluggish transitions, awkward syntax, and clumsy word choice. You’ll certainly catch more typos. And you’ll even spot logical gaps in your arguments—points that you thought you’d made but that failed to appear on the page.

 

Still, even if you regularly read your writing aloud, you’ll improve only with practice. Writing is like any other skill: it improves with repetition. So for the same reason a basketball player shoots a thousand jump shots in an empty gym, you should write at every opportunity. Write articles for your firm’s website, write for your local bar journal, write for your personal blog. If nothing else, write more letters. The more you write, the better you’ll write.

 

Becoming a good writer is a process—a process that even the best writers never finish. Improvement is incremental, and setbacks are painful. But if you truly want to become a good writer, you can. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. All it takes is a little bit of reading, a little bit of technique, and a lot of preservation.      

 

Alexander MacDonald is a 2012 graduate of the William & Mary Marshall-Wythe School of Law. He is now an associate attorney at Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete, LLP, and the editor in chief of the Practice Tips Series. He can be reached at amac2644@gmail.com.