Adjunct Law Prof Blog

Editor: Mitchell H. Rubinstein
New York Law School

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Book Review Highlight-Garner on Language and Writing

41uf88iotl_sl500_aa240__2Brayan A. Garner, who has been the Editor-In-Chief of Black's Law Dictionary since 1991 and a best selling author of more than a dozen books has written the forthcoming book, Garner on Language and Writing (ABA 2008) which is available now from for $59.95. The book spans 839 pages and is a composed of a compilation of essays, including a foreword by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Garner's first essay sets the tone of the entire book. He notes that no one can teach the physical aspects of writing, but that it is "quite possible to teach the mental aspects of writing." He then goes on to discuss how to learn to write, the importance of efficiency and planning. What I found most interesting however, is Garner's recommendation to readers to find good models of writing to learn from. What are those models? On page 23, he points to briefs filed by the U.S. Solicitor General which are available online. Interestingly, he also recommends that students form writing groups so that they can learn from each other. He also explains that prose should be kept plainspoken and formulaci phrases should be avoided. Garner also empasizes something I always found important-the aesthetics of the page. Thus, the writers choice of font, space, capitalization and headings are important.
As this is a legal book, Garner also breaks down the necessary elements of brief writing and in framing  legal questions. He also explains that excessive legalese can lead to confusion. What I found most interesting, however, is that he noted in the book on page 389 that Legal Writing Instructors are badly overworked and underpaid and he asks for "student activisim" to set things straight.  In my view, Garner's advice "right on" and legal writing instructors should seriously consider adopting this book for class.
However, while this book offers a lot, it is simply too large. I suppose legal writing professors who choose to assign this book can pick and choose which chapters to assign. However, it would have been much more productive if this book were divided into two, possibly three editions.

Mitchell H. Rubinstein

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I've heard these before: Forget legalese, have good structure, emulate a great writer, don't be too technical, don't be TOO creative, just get to the point efficiently...

However, I can't help but feel that good legal writing isn't just about plain language and being straightforward.

For example, In "The Common Law", by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., he writes "I shall use the history of our law so far as it is necessary to explain a conception or to interpret a rule, but no further. In doing so there are two errors equally to be avoided both by writer and reader. One is that of supposing, because an idea seems very familiar and natural to us, that it has always been so. Many things which we take for granted have had to be laboriously fought out or though out in past times." I believe this book (set of lectures) was published in 1881 and the style reflects that.

Had this piece been written today, many writing professors would argue that the same paragraph could be re-written as follows: "I shall not use too much history in explaining a concept. Both writer and reader should avoid two errors. One is to suppose just because an idea seems familiar, that it has always been that way..."

Surely my edited version doesn't reflect the same eloquence as Justice Holmes' version. Mine gets to the same point, but who wants to read 250 pages of "getting to the point"? Yes, a trial judge, opposing counsel, and your client. My first year professor, Prof. Nancy Waite, taught us that legal writers should have a "writer's tool box" and one should use a different tool in different circumstances. Are legal writing professors teaching the "eloquence" tool?

I appeal to every writing instructor, if there is an equilibrium between writing both eloquently and efficiently, teach us how to reach it.

(Maybe this will be the topic of my next article!!!)

By the way, I'll check out the book!!! Thanks!

Posted by: Sachin R | Dec 18, 2008 10:22:37 PM

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