Oregon State Bar Bulletin — AUGUST/SEPTEMBER 2008
The Legal Writer
Mea Culpa:
Mistakes of a Writing Column Writer
By Suzanne E. Rowe

I knew when I began writing a column on writing that I was skating on thin ice. I am, after all, merely human. And I’m a bad skater.

While I take writing very seriously, and while I earnestly strive for perfection, I knew from the beginning that I’d make mistakes. I knew that sometimes I’d be wrong, and I knew that I’d hear from you about it. On that last point, I was very right.

Over the last two years, I have received lovely messages thanking me for enlightening or at least entertaining articles, and I’ve received equally lovely messages pointing out my faults. Lest you think these latter messages are unwelcome, let me offer a glimpse into the heart of a writing curmudgeon.

Nothing makes me happier than knowing that someone read my column and then reached for a beloved writing manual to prove me wrong. Or that someone remembered a high school English teacher’s lesson about the nuances of word usage and just had to tap out an email to let me know that, according to Mrs. Doyle, I was wrong. Just think! Not only are folks out there reading about writing, they are thinking about writing!

Being wrong, however, is not a pleasant thing. So this column is intended to undo some of the mischief done by my errors and to share some of the insights I’ve gained from you.

Basic Errors
I begin by apologizing for three basic errors. First, a dear reader pointed out early on that I am not actually a curmudgeon. My New Oxford American English Dictionary defines a curmudgeon as "a bad-tempered or surly person." I am typically a happy person. But I do become bad tempered and surly when I read bad writing.

The next two basic errors concern typographical errors. One of my early articles was called "Perfect Proofing." Of course, it had my first typographical error. I’m not about to tell you what or where, but I will admit that it’s there. I will also admit that, when proofing that article for the last time, I decided I was too tired to apply all of the proofing tips I’d offered. The point at which I reached that unfortunate decision is one paragraph before the error appears.

The third error in this trifecta resulted from last-minute tinkering. It’s tricky knowing when to tinker and when to let things be — especially when the urge to tinker comes just before the publisher sends the magazine off to the printer (or before you deliver your brief to the court). In one article, I added at the last minute a possibly interesting phrase in quotation marks. Only one mark got in, so the quote never ends. I should have let that one be.

Turned Phrases
In my attempts to be entertaining, I sometimes turn a phrase — and end up turning it inside out. That might be entertaining, but it’s unintentional.

The title of one column was "Devilish Details," a take-off on the common expression "the devil’s in the details." As it turns out, the original phrase was "God is in the details." The phrase has been attributed to Flaubert, but of course he would have written it in French as "Le bon Dieu est dans le détail." The phrase has also been attributed to artist Michelangelo and to architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Whoever is in charge of details, and whoever originated the expression, our profession is certainly detail oriented. And of course someone pointed out that my details weren’t quite right.

Another interesting bit of history I learned — thankfully, before publication — is that the "rule of thumb" was the maximum size stick a man could use to legally beat his wife. I found another way to express that idea. (I later learned that the "rule of thumb" definition on wife beating is an urban legend. I’m still avoiding it, just in case.)

Here’s a favorite gaffe. I once wrote — to begin discussion of a new topic — that I had to "add my two cents." What an admonishment I received for that trip-up: "I don’t imagine you taped two pennies to a letter and mailed it to the Bulletin. What you did was ‘add my two cents’ worth,’ i.e., offer your opinion on a small matter couched in self-deprecating terms." Absolutely, yes.

I don’t remember my mistake on mnemonic devices, those lovely patterns of letters or associations that help us remember things. But I was grateful that someone pointed out the origin of the word "mnemonic." It comes from Mnemosyne, the Greek goddess of memory and the mother of the Muses. I now think of her as I look at my blinking cursor wondering what to write next.

Style Wars
One reader took me to task because his style manuals disagreed with my style manuals. Now where would the fun be if all the style manuals agreed on all points? Besides, total agreement isn’t possible, given that language is dynamic and this constant change opens up varying interpretations.

Still another reader declined to follow my advice until I provided specific style manual citation for a particular point. I do try to end each article with the specific manuals that provided insights for that piece. But I have been known to have four or five manuals out on my desk at once, and I may not always cite every one that sparked a half-baked idea. Let me list some of my favorites here, several of which I used for this article:

Dictionaries

New Oxford American English Dictionary
(2d ed. 2005).

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary
(11th ed. 2003) (also available online
at www.m-w.com).

Bryan Garner, A Dictionary of Modern
Legal Usage
(2d ed. 2001).

Style Manuals

The Chicago Manual of Style
(15th ed. 2003).

Strunk & White, The Elements of
Style
(3d ed. 1979).


Texts (with exercises)

Terri C. LeClercq, Guide to Legal
Writing Style
(4th ed. 2007).

Richard C. Wydick, Plain English for
Lawyers
(5th ed. 2005).

Attempted Humor
While no one has raised this issue (at least not to me), I feel compelled to include it. I try in each article to spice things up with a bit of humor. My brother — who is very funny — thinks this is a grave mistake on my part. I’m supposed to be the serious one, and I have no business poking fun at anything, especially when people could think that I am poking fun at them.

To be clear, some of the smartest people I have taught and the best attorneys I know make the mistakes that I write about in this column. If they didn’t, I would just spend evenings curled up with my dictionary and never get to share the marvelous tidbits I discover. I try to dull the point of my arrows by including myself as a target, listing the mistakes that "we lawyers" make. (Yes, I admit that I use "they" as a singular pronoun when I speak. Mea culpa!)

Even so, I offer this sincere apology. If I have offended anyone, in any way, I am deeply sorry.

Gracious Thanks
This article would have been much longer were it not for my colleagues, research assistants and friends who have caught most of my mistakes before each article went to press. I’m especially grateful to the following: Amy Nuetzman of the University of Oregon’s Academic Learning Services, who offers the same clear, gentle guidance to students and professors alike; Harvey Rogers, who quickly made the transition from star student to star editor, and who can find the answer to any research question; and Mark Corley, who shares my fascination with language and doesn’t mind that I interrupt his evening reading with random questions as I peer over the dictionary cuddled in my lap.

Any mistakes that have gotten beyond this outstanding cast are clearly my own. Mea culpa.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Suzanne E. Rowe is an associate professor at the University of Oregon School of Law, where she directs the Legal Research and Writing Program. As the Luvaas Faculty Fellow for 2008-2009, she is grateful to the Luvaas Faculty Fellowship Endowment Fund for support of her articles in The Legal Writer. Her email is srowe@law.uoregon.edu

 

© 2008 Suzanne E. Rowe


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