Thinking About Writing:
The Discipline to Become a Better Writer
By Suzanne E. Rowe
We often hear about the discipline of novelists who carve time out of each day for their craft. Ernest Hemingway famously got up early every single morning to write, regardless how late he’d been up the night before or how wild the night’s events had been.1
In contrast, legal writers often seem to be writing on the fly. Grab a few minutes between meetings! Interrupt writing to answer the phone or send a text! To become better legal writers, we need to borrow a page from great writers and develop discipline about writing. That discipline will help us to avoid distractions, to be still and focus on the writing. Discipline encourages us to start small, work in condensed periods, take breaks and breathe.
Just like Hemingway, we need to prioritize our writing. That’s hard to do with other obligations screaming at us. Is it possible to carve out two hours for writing when everyone needs just 15 minutes of help?
Yes. As a colleague reminds me, “Don’t let the urgent overtake the important.” Writing is important. It’s important to your clients, and it’s important to your reputation. The two hours you block out for writing is at least as important as the two hours you block out for a team meeting. It’s certainly more important than the jammed copier or the latest gossip around the coffee pot (though those things can certainly seem urgent). Prioritize writing, and you’re on your way to becoming a better legal writer.
Turn Off, Tune Out
Great writing isn’t the result of multi-tasking. Great writing requires concentration. Sam Jacobsen wrote in a May 2010 column of the modern disease she termed taskus interruptus. She explained that “concentration requires managing distractions, no small task in today’s multimedia world. Never before has the ability to pay attention been challenged to the extent it is being challenged today.”
To have the concentration required for great writing, you must turn off your phone, stop checking your email and ignore your texts. For good measure, I have a sign that I post on my door: “Do Not Interrupt Unless You Are 1) Offering Me a Raise, 2) My Husband, or 3) Under 10 Years Old.” If I’m not sure the sign will prevent interruptions, I slink away to a secret spot in the building where I’m never, ever found. (And, no, I won’t tell you where it is.)
After you’ve prioritized writing and eliminated the external distractions, you have to still your mind and focus it on the writing task at hand. Sitting still is not a common activity in today’s society — at least not sitting still for the sheer purpose of thinking. We can sit for hours to check Facebook or to watch the game, but just to think? About writing?
To become a better legal writer, you might need to practice sitting still and focusing. You could begin with yoga, which might have other benefits as well. You could try your hand at crossword puzzles, although I consider them a form a torture. Jigsaw puzzles are also effective at keeping the human body still and mind focused, though while I’m confessing my shortcomings I’ll admit that I get bored after finding the edge pieces.
You might just try a simple focusing exercise before beginning to write. I learned this one years ago: A workshop leader had a roomful of participants close our eyes, hold our arms out straight to either side with index fingers pointing to opposite horizons, and slowly bring our fingers to touch the tips of our noses. Stop right now and try it. (I’m waiting….) Did you notice that, when your hands were about two inches away from your face, you couldn’t think of anything but the space between your fingertips and your nose? When your mind is clear, you’re ready to start writing.
Great writing has to start with just writing. You have to put words on the page before you can revise and polish them into the shine of great writing. Previous articles in The Legal Writer have addressed writer’s block (see June 2013 and October 2006), but this problem is slightly different. This is about knowing already what to write and forcing yourself to actually do it. This is about the discipline of sitting in the chair (or standing at your cool nonsitting desk or walking at your ultra-cool treadmill desk) for longer than you want. You have to stay put, and you have to do it for a recognizable period of time.
Getting started can be easier if you break your big task into a series of smaller assignments. Each discrete assignment should have a clear, finite end: introduction, statement of issue, summary of facts, three arguments, opponent’s counterarguments and conclusion. The order you approach the assignments individually shouldn’t matter — middle, end, beginning is just as good as beginning, middle, end. Write the conclusion, next write your opponent’s counterarguments, take a break with the summary of facts, then write the page or two explaining the complex rule of law, move into your best arguments, finish up with the introduction.
Giving yourself a list of short assignments — especially if each has a tight but realistic deadline — imposes discipline on the project and forces you to move ahead. Perhaps you could work in just a tiny reward for meeting each goal. Finish the summary of facts, and you get a Euphoria dark chocolate heart wrapped in pink foil?
Work in a Condensed Period
Similarly, discipline can be easier in a condensed period. This might be why many people wait until the last minute, when a condensed period is all that’s available. You can get the benefit without the stress if you put yourself on schedule and stick to it. Again, put a reward at the end to make yourself perform: Meet my self-imposed deadline, and I get to go to lunch with a favorite colleague.
Since becoming a better writer means you actually are writing, it also means you have to stop researching. The immediate gratification of the click, click, click through documents is going to be replaced with the painstaking think, think, think and write, write, write. But the writing can’t spring full-formed like Athena from clicking through documents. If you’re on a schedule, you can’t put off the thinking and writing for too long.
The condensed period has an added benefit: You don’t have to relearn everything when you come back to the project after an interruption of a few hours, a week or a month. The research is fresh, the ideas are crisp, and you can get in the zone.
Take a Breath
In the midst of this intense focus, you still need to breathe. I compare this breath to my breaks when lifting weights. In the middle of a hard workout, I occasionally need to just walk away from the weights — wander to the other side of the room, get some water and look out the window. Both my physical state and my mental state improve. My muscles get a brief reprieve, and my brain gets to relax from the intense concentration.
Note that I do not take a quick peek at my iPhone, which has no more place in a weight room than it does at my writing desk. The breath needs to rejuvenate, not divert. Diversion dilutes discipline.
Expect the Beast, Not Beauty
Finally, don’t expect the first draft to be divinely beautiful. We all write “shitty first drafts” — Anne Lamott’s phrase, though my students certainly perk up when I use it in class. Writing this first draft means calming the editor in your head who thinks everything you’ve written since that really lovely haiku back in third grade has been absolutely terrible. Just write, with discipline, even knowing the first draft will be “shitty.” After you produce that draft, you’ll get to revise, modify, improve, enhance — and before long the heavenly chorus will be singing.
Caveat: In 20 years of teaching, I’ve encountered exactly two students who truly wrote first drafts as final drafts. Each sentence could take 30 minutes to construct. That’s a brand of discipline that I can’t teach. Go back to the section on yoga if you’re inclined to that approach. For the rest of us, we write, then revise and revise. And revise some more. That’s the discipline that I know, and I think it’s making me a better writer.
1. Robert Van Gelder, “Ernest Hemingway Talks of Work and War,” N.Y. Times, Aug. 11, 1940, available at www.nytimes.com/books/99/07/04/specials/hemingway-work.html.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Suzanne E. Rowe is the James L. and Ilene R. Hershner Professor at the University of Oregon School of Law, where she directs the Legal Research and Writing Program. She is grateful for the insights of the students in her Writing Colloquium who commented on this article.
An archive of The Legal Writer articles is available here.
© 2014 Suzanne E. Rowe