Thinking About Writing, Part II
By Elizabeth Ruiz Frost
In the November 2013 column of The Legal Writer, Megan McAlpin encouraged us to stop thinking of ourselves as good writers or bad writers and focus instead on becoming better writers. She offered helpful advice for improving, but one of her suggestions gave us pause: She said to think more about writing. What does that mean, to think about writing? How does a person think about writing? Does it mean meditating on one’s own writing? Does it mean being cognizant of others’ good writing? Or does it mean studying the mechanics? Well, it could mean all of those things. In the December 2013 column of The Legal Writer, Suzanne Rowe wrote about taking a disciplined, focused approach in thinking about one’s own writing. This month, Elizabeth Frost suggests that improvement comes from continued engagement with the discipline.
Writing isn’t easy. Writing well requires thinking not only about what you write but how you write it. Thinking about how to write can entail a lot of different things. But as you think about how you write, think about the big picture — your actual writing process. Also think about the details like your mastery of style and grammar. To improve your writing process and mastery of the details, you’ll need a certain entrepreneurial spirit for continued learning. After all, lawyers don’t finish learning about legal writing upon graduating from law school, by any means. Here are a few ideas for continued learning and thinking about writing long after law school.
The Big Picture: Comparing Your Process to Maya Angelou’s
As lawyers who are also writers (or writers who are also lawyers?), we may tend to lose sight of the way we write. Because we don’t often have the luxury of choosing when to write or where to write or even what to write, we may think very little about our writing process. But even though we can’t control every aspect of our writing careers, we can benefit from thinking about our own process. One way to revisit our process is to learn about other writers’ processes. Fortunately, writers tend to like to talk about writing, so there’s no shortage of shared wisdom available. As you learn about how excellent writers write, you might pick up on a consistent theme: Writing takes a lot of work.
When talking about the work of writing, many writers focus on the importance of discipline and routine. Some even say that discipline and routine can be the key to overcoming writer’s block. For example, Maya Angelou, Khaled Houssani, Kurt Vonnegut and Henry Miller all stuck to a strict daily routine, setting aside long chunks of uninterrupted time each day to write. Most of them wrote first thing in the morning before the day’s distractions could set in. Haruki Murakami, Vonnegut and Esquire editor A.J. Jacobs incorporated rigorous daily exercise into their writing routine. Daily running and swimming kept them focused. Angelou and short-story writer Nathan Englander shut off all distractions. Angelou rented a quiet hotel room in which to write, and Englander turned off his phone and wore earplugs.1
If you’re interested in reading more than snippets about writers and their process, I recommend Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott. Lamott is a professional writer for whom writing does not always come so easy. In her book, she shares practical advice for overcoming writer’s block and tackling projects that seem overwhelming. Though her style is light and funny, this book offers serious help for writers who struggle with developing a process.
Next, read Ernest Hemingway On Writing. This collection of Hemingway’s reflections on writing might speak more to the novelist in you than the contract drafter, but the sections on discipline and work habits apply to all writers.
Continue Learning About Sound Writing
Reflecting on your writing process may get you part way to “how to write,” but style manuals and writing texts help to make the writing sound. Pick up a style manual and read it. I mean, really read it. Looking at the spines on your bookshelf doesn’t count. You may think reading a style manual sounds dreadfully boring. I won’t disagree. But look, we should probably be eating multiple servings of kale every day, too. Sometimes what’s good for us isn’t doesn’t sound so appealing.
I recommend reading through style manuals because it’s awfully difficult to improve our writing if we don’t know why it’s wrong. If you’ve looked at your writing and said, “I know this sounds crazy but I don’t know why” lately, then you know what I’m talking about. Searching for “sounds crazy” won’t turn up anything in the Chicago Manual of Style’s index. If you can’t diagnose the writing problem, fixing it is nigh impossible. Reading through a manual will remind you of rules you haven’t thought of since seventh-grade English and might unearth rules you didn’t know existed. Once you know the rules, it’ll be easier to spot violations in your writing later.
Now, what makes for a good style manual or writing text? A good manual should explain the technicalities of writing: parts of speech, rules of grammar and punctuation conventions. Here are a few good ones:
Beyond the First Draft by Megan McAlpin. McAlpin wrote this text with law students and practitioners in mind. It combines quick reference checklists — perfect for editing your work! — with detailed explanations of grammar, style and punctuation. Every time I read it, I say to myself (out loud because I talk to myself), “Uh oh, I’ve been doing that wrong for years!”
Plain English for Lawyers by Brian Garner. This writing text offers grammar and style lessons for legal writing in short, digestible chapters. It’s not too heavy on grammatical technicalities, which makes it highly readable. Garner covers principles of sound prose, document design and transactional drafting, so there’s something for everyone.
The Grammar Devotional: Daily Tips for Successful Writing from Grammar Girl by Mignon Fogerty. I have described my affection for Fogerty’s grammar blog in previous columns. In The Grammar Devotional, she lays out 365 tips to improve writing, designed to be read in daily doses. You might cheat and read several per day.
Aspen Handbook for Legal Writers by Deborah Bouchoux. This handbook is perhaps the least readable of my recommended texts, but it’s nonetheless a terrific resource. It’s least readable because it’s written as a pure style guide without fun interjections and editorial flourishes (joke count: zero). But maybe you don’t like fun flourishes and you just want to get down to business. Then this is the text for you. It’s written with legal writers in mind, so it has useful sections on common mistakes in legal writing and conventions for legal documents.
Now you have a list of possibilities, but there’s a catch: Once you find a style manual or writing text you like, you have to read it. Owning a text but using it as a reference only while editing will help a little. But that stressful moment when you’re pressed to complete a draft isn’t the best time to learn the difference between an en dash and an em dash.
Of course, I recognize that even a great writing text can be a little dense. Reading a writing text cover to cover is like eating a gallon of pudding: you might get off to an enthusiastic start, but eventually your stomach will turn. In order to make a writing text more palatable, make the lessons bite-sized. Start with the subjects that really excite you — like coordinating conjunctions! (Just kidding.) Start with a topic that doesn’t make you want to pull out your fingernails. Then read another small section start to finish, focusing on examples if they’re provided. Then read a little more the next day and a little more the next day. That way, you’ll accumulate lessons about writing that you can apply when it comes time to write your next project.
Attend CLEs on Writing
Reading about writing is not the only way to engage in the discipline. Remember how much you loved your writing class in law school? You know, the one where your favorite law school professor gave you all that feedback on your writing for which you were so grateful? (And do you also remember how at the time you thought, “I should send her chocolates for all the help she has given me”? It’s never too late for that.)
You can never recreate Camelot, but you can reawaken your passion for writing by attending CLEs on writing and drafting. Seek out classes to refresh your memory of the basics, enhance the skills you have or even just engage in conversations with others about writing. If you can’t find one that fits the bill, think about organizing a CLE for your office on a tailored topic that would interest you and your coworkers who write.
Becoming a better writer means thinking hard about how to put words on paper and then, of course, which words to use. Learning about writing — even the dry details like dangling modifiers — is a lifelong process that makes us better at thinking about writing.
1. Collected from interviews and passages from the authors by James Clear. http://jamesclear.com/daily-routines-writers/.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Elizabeth Ruiz Frost teaches legal research and writing and other courses at the University of Oregon School of Law.
An archive of The Legal Writer articles is available here.
© 2014 Elizabeth Ruiz Frost