Although the output on this blog might often fail to reflect it, I’m a pretty good writer. When I draft legal briefs I’m almost exceptional.
I say that not to brag, but to get to the next, more important, point: I was not born with a natural talent for writing. I had the good fortune to work for people who insisted that I become a better writer. They not only insisted that I improve, they also took the time to show me how to improve.
Many years ago I taught legal writing at my alma mater. That year as a full time writing instructor was demoralizing. I learned that most law students don’t know how to write. It’s not their fault; no one insisted that they improve, and no one showed them how to improve.
Who showed me? A federal judge.
I worked for the judge for two years, and there was little hands on instruction. If I couldn’t figure out how to give him the legal information he needed that was my problem. But if I wrote something that was supposed to go out under his signature, he’d sit down and make me watch him edit it. He wasn’t happy about this, but if he was going fix my writing I had to watch. It felt like being in the penalty box.
He questioned every choice I made. My responses told him what he already knew: my choices were poor because they were thoughtless.
The judge used short sentences written in the active tense. He disdained nominalizations.
I would routinely begin a sentence by writing “Under Louisiana law,…” And he would routinely change it to “In Louisiana,…” Then he’d admonish: “it’s kind of obvious that we’re a court making legal pronouncements; we only need to let people know which law we’re applying.” He relentlessly struck excess verbiage.
His approach was so direct, so simple. And yet so out-of-sync with how most other lawyers and judges wrote. Sadly, as I came to realize, most lawyers and judges write poorly. I guess, it’s not their fault; no one was around to show them.
Okay, scratch that.
Actually, there is no excuse for not writing better. If you write poorly (assume you do, because the odds are you do) then you just need to find someone to help you improve.
I have a perfect recommendation: Bryan Garner.
Bryan Garner is the leading light of legal writing instruction. I’ve seen him speak, and he’s also one of the best speakers out there. I have almost all of Garner’s books, not because I felt I needed to learn more (although I did, and always will). I bought them because reading his books makes me feel like I’m sitting next to Judge Duplantier, except that Garner’s patient and takes more time to explain why certain choices make sense.
Ask anyone who’s attended one of his seminars if they enjoyed it. How many people are elated about what they learn at a seminar? Go to one of Garner’s workshops and find out.