Top 10 Writing Tips for Lawyers (as well as everyone else).

writing-in-the-dark-1497115-1599x1200Many writers confuse putting words down on the page, which is really a form of coal mining, with editing and shaping those words, which is really where writing gets done. Writing is about thinking, and the question that should always be uppermost in your mind when you write (indeed, it’s a great idea to have it on your computer monitor or in a note on the wall that you see every time you look up from the screen) is: What am I trying to say?

Simple right? But don’t confuse simple with easy.

As you contemplate writing THAT BOOK, you know, the one you’ve threatened to sit down and write for years now but somehow haven’t yet started, here are 10 tips to make getting into the water a lot easier. That’s what Lincoln Square Books does best: we help you get out of your own way, so you can finish what you’ve always wanted to start.

  1. Legal writing asks of the author that they are familiar with the “language” of the law. Words have very specific meanings that don’t always apply in the “civilian” world most of us occupy. (“Alien” is a good example.) So while it feels like you spend your time writing “jargonese,” the strength of practicing legal writing is that it forces you to look at every word you use and be aware that it has a specific job to do in the context of your project. In your own writing, whether for business or pleasure, let each word carry its own weight, and don’t be afraid to get rid of those that don’t.
  2. Real writers are first and foremost readers. Keep up your own reading for pleasure. If all you read is serious books, treat yourself to a “pot boiler” once in a while. If you read a lot of genre fiction, try something a little more intellectually challenging. One of the signs that you are improving as a writer is noticing that your taste in reading is becoming more challenging.
  3. It takes both confidence and humility to write well. Don’t be afraid to take advice on whether or not you are saying EXACTLY what you intend to say. (It’s easy to rail against the idiots that don’t get what you are trying to say, but, just maybe, you’re not saying it as clearly or as well as you could.) Too often we assume because we know what it is we’re trying to say, others will know it as well. Don’t assume your readers know what you mean, and be clear and concise, and ELEGANT in your language. Understand grammar and punctuation and use it correctly. Hunt those errant commas! Keep your paragraphs short, if you can. Long paragraphs exhaust readers.
  4. I know you probably read it in high school, but go back and read Strunk&White again [White, E.B., and William Strunk, Jr. The Elements of Style (Macmillan Company, 1959)]. You’ll be amazed what a wonderfully example of the very thing it is trying to teach you, that little book is.  Make sure you have  good reference books nearby, like dictionaries and thesauruses (or thesauri, if you’re picky). If you’re writing narrative nonfiction check out LSB founding partner Peter Rubie’s, The Elements of Narrative Nonfiction: How to Write the Novel of True Events (Linden Publishing)
  5. Know what makes good writing. This is more than just noting and being able to follow the rules. Good writing is like good art, most people know it when they see it but they can’t always exactly say why. Good writing is organized, with thoughts flowing naturally from one paragraph to another. It is clear and unambiguous. It is concise. It uses good grammar and capitalization in a natural way. It is free of typos because you proofread it. It does not assume your readers know much about your subject. ALWAYS make sure your citations are clear and THERE. If you’re working on a book you can put your cites in the back to keep the flow of the narrative humming along but support your arguments as best you can.
  6. Practice “writing” every day if you can, don’t just churn out stuff. Know the rules of writing and try to use them, even when you’re just composing emails and letters. Your job may force you to use a legal tone, but it’s worth remembering one of the most quoted people in modern U.S. Supreme Court Opinions is Bob Dylan. If you can, say it like it is and don’t be deliberately ambiguous. Try not to sound, on the page, like an opera singer who’s decided to “slum” by singing rock n’roll.
  7. Keep in mind that your writing is the best way to put over your ideas, and may well be the only chance you get to really connect with others. Remember rule #1: writing is about thinking. Know what it is you want to say, and then say it clearly and with organization, and hopefully with some poetry (even if it isn’t Bob Dylan.)
  8. Leave plenty of time to REWRITE your piece. Let it sit, like a good wine or piece of meat, so the sediment sinks to the bottom and the juices settle back into the meat.
  9. Use an active voice — the one we speak in most of the time. (I did this, you did that.) The power of the active voice can’t be underestimated. It is immediate, it is engaging, and it avoids passivity which in turn implies an aloofness or distancing of the narrator, which can be off-putting to many readers. Think about the rhythm and length of your sentences. Don’t. Make. Them. All. The. Same.
  10. Write in Anglo Saxon, it is the heart of transparent English. Avoid adjectives and adverbs as much as possible. Try not to “Frenchify” your vocabulary with long, somewhat ornate words, for which there are perfectly good and much shorter Anglo Saxon alternatives. (Hide things, don’t adumbrate them, or salt them away.) Don’t use two words when one will do. Just make sure it’s the right word.