Oregon State Bar Bulletin — JANUARY 2009
The Legal Writer
A new writing process for the new year
By Rebekah Hanley

This column talks about writing in the new year, and it gets personal. I think that’s appropriate, because writing is a personal subject.

My husband’s family members have an unusual, but strangely charming, tradition of designing each others’ New Year’s resolutions. It’s nothing formal; it started one year with his aunt’s uninvited suggestion for her sister, but it caught on. Now it’s an annual ritual. "In case you were wondering, here’s what you need to change about yourself." Fabulous. Thanks a lot.

This year, I’m announcing my own resolutions. They focus on improving my writing process. A writer’s process — a much more private matter than a writer’s results — is the foundation underlying all written works. A solid foundation helps improve the quality of the work product built upon it.

So my writing resolutions should achieve two things: deflect attention from whatever flaws my in-laws have noticed and, more importantly, strengthen the foundation beneath my writing. While I imagine that few of you have families like my husband’s, I invite you to reconsider your own writing process and evaluate whether my resolutions — or some of your own design — might help you write powerful prose with more ease and joy in the new year.

1. Procrastinate Less.
In 2008, I could generally find some other task to tackle before I focused on my next writing project. Before sitting down to draft I’d take care of all other pressing matters: plan a class, sharpen my pencils or visit the ice cream parlor.

But starting a writing project earlier means preserving more time to revise. And having more time to revise translates into sharper, brighter work product. Experts on writing agree that the notion of a good first draft is fantasy; in reality, a writer’s early efforts require a careful and critical examination of substance, organization, expression and flow. Only if writers dedicate time to polishing their product can they be certain that their work will have the desired impact on their audience.

In the past, I’ve often found my motivation to start a project in the stress of an approaching deadline. In 2009, to make sure that I have enough time to make my writing tight and lively, I will look for motivation elsewhere: in the opportunity it presents for me to invest in, experiment with and improve my writing.

2. Save the Revising for the End.
This resolution focuses on efficiency, because I wasn’t so efficient in 2008. Producing good writing calls for making countless decisions. Some of those decisions involve legal analysis. Which arguments should I include? Which cases should I use to support those arguments? Other decisions focus on organization. Which argument should I present first? Should I break that argument into subparts? Another set of decisions accompanies drafting; writers must select sentence structure, choose among available words and hit the desired tone. Revising — altering one’s own work to improve it — should come last, after the brainstorming, organizing and drafting are complete.

In the past, I’ve been less than diligent about following this recommended sequence. As a result, I’ve wasted time agonizing over text that I’ve later omitted altogether. To free myself to draft without simultaneously critiquing every decision, I’m resolving to push the revising to the end.

3. Write More by Hand.
While technology offers wonderful advantages to writers, drafting on a computer is not the only approach. And it’s often not the best approach. The best writers at my old firm handwrote the first drafts of every memo, motion and brief. I generally don’t, but I believe that I should. When I use a pen and paper, I feel more connected to my written words than I do when I type. I think this flows from the feel of the pen in my hand and, perhaps more so, from seeing my expression in my own handwriting rather than in ubiquitous Times New Roman font.

Writing is an art; typing is not. When I type my text as I craft it, I conflate the creative with the mechanical. I’m a fast typist, so sometimes typing a first draft will be expedient and therefore helpful. But often I find my fingers fly over the keyboard faster than my mind settles on the right form of expression. So where ignoring technology will allow my ideas to flow freely at a comfortable rhythm and speed, I pledge to choose the pen and shut the laptop.

4. Close Virtual Windows.
One downside of technology for me is its tendency to distract me in my productive moments. As long as I’m publicly reflecting on bad habits with an eye toward self-improvement, I’ll describe this problem more bluntly: I am addicted to e-mail and the internet.

Whether I’m drafting on the computer or writing with pen and paper, when I hear the sound of a new message entering my inbox, I stop my drafting to investigate. And at times I also interrupt my writing progress to check the latest headlines, weather or online sale. This is reasonable when I’m expecting an urgent message or really need a break from my work. But I’ll admit that occasionally I switch from work to hobby for a moment simply because doing so is so incredibly easy these days. I have company here, right?

In the new year, I resolve to fight this addiction. More specifically, I will close my windows. This resolution is going to be very difficult to keep, but I’m going to try. I think I can sell this to myself the same way I pitch self-control to my child. Maybe I can convince you, too. Here goes: Don’t think of this as losing constant access to e-mail and the internet. Rather, with this resolution, I get distraction-free time in a quiet space to focus and create. I get to maintain my momentum while I’m writing. I get to be more efficient. Then I’ll have more time to surf the net when I’m finished writing. It’s a win-win proposition.

5. Open Physical Windows.
After closing the windows on my screen, I think I’ll open the windows in my office. I’ll also take other steps to make my writing environment more pleasant. No more writing on a cleared-off corner of a cluttered desk in 2009. I’m going to stop settling for a ballpoint pen when I strongly prefer a gel pen. Perhaps I’ll even find a permanent parking place outside my office for the bicycle-cum-sculpture that’s been decorating my workspace — and tripping me — for an entire semester.

Enough. I’m going to bring cut flowers and classical CDs into my newly comfortable and relaxing office. I can’t wait to discover how much fun writing will be in this new Zen-like space.

6. Create Boundaries.
Finally, I resolve that after I finish the extreme makeover of my office, I will do my writing there and only there. In 2008, I had a hard time leaving my writing at the office. But with the efficiency from ceasing my electronic multitasking and focusing on writing while doing it, I hope that I will no longer feel the need to bring my writing home with me. Treating writing as part of my job, not my round-the-clock activity, should allow me to reestablish true family time in 2009. I’ll probably keep a small notebook on hand to jot down ideas so I don’t forget them before work the next day. But at least I won’t be rushing to my computer in the middle of bath or story time. That sacrifice is so 2008.

Happy writing in the new year, legal writers!


Rebekah Hanley teaches legal research and writing at the University of Oregon School of Law. Her e-mail is rhanley@uoregon.edu.

© 2009 Rebekah Hanley

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