Sunday, August 28, 2011

To improve your legal writing, read lots of good (non-legal) writing

My co-blogger, Professor Fruehwald, made this point in a previous post and now it's been reiterated by the blog Lawyerist.  And when Professor Michael Hunter Schwartz asked me for similar advice to pass along to his incoming legal writing students, I said they should read well-written newspapers like the NYT or WSJ. Great minds think alike, I guess.

From the Lawyerist:

Do you want to improve your writing? I mean, really improve (and clarify) your writing? If so, the first thing to do is read good stuff. And by “good stuff,” I mean the work of short fiction masters like Edward P. Jones and Raymond Carver.

The second thing to do is actually write.

So, to keep things really simple, here are three easy steps you can take to dramatically improve your writing:

  1. Read
  2. Write
  3. Read

If you’re ready to follow the steps, read on:


My advice? Don’t read anything “legal.” Borders Books might be bankrupt but you can still get your hands on paperback books. Go to the library or the bookstore or pull out your Kindle and download a copy of Lost  in the City by Edward P. Jones, or Cathedral by Raymond Carver. These authors are masters of the short story. You can learn a tremendous amount about writing just by reading a few of Carver’s minimalist short stories.


If you followed Step 1, you finished a story or two in the hour before you went to bed last night. Good. Now sit down at your desk, take a pen and paper, and copy down long-hand the entire opening paragraph of one of the stories you read. Do it word for word. Then read it over. What do you notice about the first sentence? How does it pull you in? How does the opening paragraph work as a whole to get you engaged? One thing a short story writer does is get the hook in. And remember: It doesn’t have to be a big hook.

This exercise will help you get inside the mind of a master writer, if only for a brief moment.


Now that you’ve had a chance to read and write and absorb, pick up the work of Jones or Carver again and get lost in the fictional world they’ve created for you. Finish another story or two, and give yourself some time off.

Start Again

When you’re ready, return to Step 1, and read those same stories again, except this time try to notice what the writer does with his or her opening sentences and paragraphs, as well as the words—simple, clear, direct words—that the writer uses. Then pick up your pen or get behind your computer and write your brief.

See a pattern?

Read, write and read. And it doesn’t have to take a lot of time. The benefit of short stories is that they’re short. Follow these three simple steps and your writing should improve. You might not win a Pulitzer, but at least you’re learning how to write—I mean really write—by reading the work of those who have.


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