Finding a Good Book:
Why Reading Good Writing Will Make You a Better Writer
By Megan McAlpin
My daughter got roller skates for her birthday this year. And after many trips around the house on the carpet, we hit the roller rink. (Yes, you can still go to a roller rink. And yes, it still looks exactly like the roller rink of your youth. They haven’t changed anything.) When we got to the roller rink, my daughter was a bit tentative. Then her friend showed up. And let’s just say that her friend is, well, less concerned with life details like personal safety. And I watched my daughter as she watched her friend. And then I watched both girls as they watched the teenagers. And, suddenly, they were really skating.
As I watched the girls improving by watching better skaters, I started thinking about writing and what it takes to learn to write well. You can sit at your own desk and write and write and write. But that’s a little like roller-skating in your living room. Sure, you’ll get better. But what you really need to do is hit the roller rink. You need to watch other people go fast and slow down and turn quickly and skate backwards. You need to see the possibilities and the techniques and even the failures.
Put Down the Brief and Pick Up a Book
Now, I know that good legal writing exists. And reading good legal writing is a good idea. But reading a good novel is, in my opinion, an even better idea.
Reading a good novel — or short story or newspaper or magazine article — is a great idea for a couple reasons. First, it’s a lot more fun. I read every night. I always choose to read a novel or book of short stories. I’ve never brought the West’s Pacific Reporter home with me and I’ve never (with the exception of a few dark years in law school) settled in for the night with a casebook.
Second, and probably more importantly, novels are written by writers. I imagine that the average novelist or journalist thinks a lot more about her writing than the average lawyer. While lawyers are writers, writing isn’t our primary job. We can’t spend endless hours revising and choosing the perfect word. We have to file the brief or get the letter to the client, all without the help of a professional editor. So spending some time with a well-written novel will mean spending some time with really good writing. And if we pay attention to the way the novelist goes fast and slows down and skates backwards, we may just learn to do the same thing.
Reading Good Writing: Finding a List
Of course, the key to becoming a better writer is to read really good writing. Your writing is unlikely to improve if you only read blogs littered with incomplete sentences. In fact, reading poor writing might have a detrimental effect on your writing. Just as the habits of good writers can rub off on you, so too can the habits of sloppy writers.
But how do you find really good writing? One way is to start with a list of great books. For example, the Huffington post published a list entitled 30 Books You Should Read Before You’re 30.1 It lists classic works by Shakespeare, Hemingway, Tolstoy and George Orwell, but also books that might contain lessons for 20-somethings, like Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. If, like me, you’re too late to complete this list before you turn 30, you can try 30 Books Every Adult Should Read Before They Die, compiled by the Museums, Libraries, and Archives Society.2 At the very least, it’s fun to see how many great books you’ve already read.
Reading Good Writing: Finding an Expert
Finding a book list can be a great starting point, but trusting a list of books compiled by strangers feels a little impersonal. So, I decided to find some trusted experts. I asked legal writing professors across the country what they recommend as good writing. They had some great ideas.
Several professors told me that their suggestions are a bit different for students than for others. They encourage their students to read good writing, but they know that these poor students (who do in fact settle in for the night with a casebook) rarely have the time to commit to a novel, so they suggest reading articles from The New Yorker, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Atlantic, Harpers and The Economist. One colleague recommended Sports Illustrated and The National Enquirer. I was surprised, but then I read her explanation. She said everyone needs to find good writing that he or she also really enjoys reading. The Wall Street Journal might work for some, but it’s not going to speak to everyone.
A few of my experts suggest students read journalism rather than fiction, even when they aren’t necessarily pressed for time. Because journalists have to get to the point quickly and write concisely, they serve as good models for legal writers in a way that even very good fiction writers may not.
My group of experts suggested other short works as well, such as Annie Proulx, Wyoming Stories; Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays; Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter From a Birmingham City Jail; T.S. Eliot, Selected Essays, 1917-1932; and G.K. Chesterton, Selected Essays.
Of course, the experts also had some really good book suggestions. Some professors simply suggested authors who consistently model really good writing. These folks said to read anything by Kurt Vonnegut, Aldous Huxley, John Galsworthy and Tobias Wolff.
Others suggested specific books. One professor recommends E.B. White’s, Charlotte’s Web, The Trumpet of the Swan and Stuart Little. She explains that even though the stories are intended for children, the books are impeccably written and will help develop an ear for good writing in general. Another professor recommends Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises for its brevity and the crispness of Hemingway’s sentences. And another recommends Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet because it introduces both Sherlock Holmes and reasoning.
One professor recommended Sonia Sotomayor’s My Beloved World for its clear, concise, vivid writing that propels the story along — and no doubt also because it’s written by a lawyer and Supreme Court Justice. Another Supreme Court Justice, Frank Murphy, makes a cameo in Kevin Boyle’s Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age, a book that one professor recommends not only for that cameo but also for the writing.
While some experts gave specific reasons for their recommendations, some didn’t. But their recommendations were so good that they still deserve a place on your to-read list: Markus Zusak, The Book Thief; George Orwell, Politics and the English Language; Russell Kirk, The American Cause; Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem; Muriel Rukeyser, The Book of the Dead; and Pat Conroy, The Prince of Tides.
Some of the books recommended by legal writing professors from across the country are particularly fun for lawyers (and lawyers in training) because they’re legal novels. One professor recommends John Grisham’s The Pelican Brief for its storytelling. And several of my legal writing colleagues recommended Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. To Kill a Mockingbird is also #1 on The ABA Journal’s list of The 25 Greatest Law Novels Ever3 (this list is another greatest list that you should add to your list of book lists). Perhaps not surprisingly, To Kill a Mockingbird is also on 30 Books You Should Read Before You’re 30 and 30 Books Every Adult Should Read Before They Die. In other words, if you haven’t read To Kill a Mockingbird, please put this magazine down and read it already.
Reading Good Writing: Finding a Friend
Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that I haven’t read everything that I’ve just recommended. I have read many of these books, and I’ve added others to my own to-read list. But some of them will just never make my list, no matter how many lists or people recommend them, unless, of course, the right person recommends them. And so, here is my final recommendation for how to find a good book: find a friend who has impeccable taste in books (read: her taste matches yours and she knows good writing from bad) and then read everything she recommends. After all, as my Sports Illustrated-reading colleague suggested, the key to reading good writing for pleasure is that you have to enjoy it.
But finding a friend with impeccable taste in books can be hard. I have several friends who are lovely people but who have terrible taste in books. (What? You read what? And you liked it? And here I thought you were such a lovely person.) One way to start the hunt might be to join, or even form, a book club. Maybe your book club could start with a great books list or maybe you could each share one of your favorites with the book club. No matter how you choose the books, though, make sure that you think and talk about more than just the story. Spend a little time thinking about and talking about the writing.
Reading good writing, especially when you pay close attention to what the writer is doing (How did she hold my attention? How did he organize that paragraph? Isn’t that a marvelous word?), is one of the easiest and most enjoyable ways to become a better writer. So find a good book and enjoy “working” on becoming a better writer.
The New Oxford American Dictionary (3d ed. 2010) (aka “my favorite dictionary”).
Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, available at m-w.com.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Megan McAlpin teaches Legal Research and Writing at the University of Oregon School of Law. She is grateful to her colleagues across the country for sharing their ideas and, particularly to Professor Ed Harri for sharing The 25 Greatest Law Novels Ever. You may contact the author at email@example.com; she would love a good book recommendation.
An archive of The Legal Writer articles is available here.
© 2014 Megan McAlpin