Thursday, October 11, 2018
Abigail Patthoff, guest blogger, Professor of Legal Writing, Chapman University Fowler School of Law
Thinking Thursdays: Speak onto the Page
The ideal advocate is both a skilled writer and a skilled speaker. Regardless of practice area, the law is a profession of words, and lawyers must be able to effectively communicate those words whether called upon to do so in a brief, in a contract, at oral argument, or when counseling a client. Yet, many lawyers experience a certain lopsidedness in their communication skills. Some of us are more confident writers than we are speakers (this blog author included!). Others are at our most articulate when speaking rather than writing.
Professor Peter Elbow, a Professor of English Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has written a book called Vernacular Eloquence: What Speech Can Bring to Writing that will appeal to lawyers of both stripes. Professor Elbow’s book sets out to be both theoretical and practical. Harnessing his frustrations about the “snobbery” of the culture of “correct writing” that he posits stifles and excludes many demographics of potentially good writers, Professor Elbow states that the theoretical goal of his book is to prove that “everyone with a native language has what it takes to write well.” Along those lines, the central argument of his book is that “we can enlist the language activity that most people find easiest, speaking, for the language activity most people find hardest, writing.”
In addition to supporting his theoretical claim by marshaling a breadth of scholarship on writing and literacy, Professor Elbow offers practical suggestions for readers looking to improve their writing. The book suggests two major concrete ways to enlist speech for writing: (1) “talking onto the page” at the early stages of writing and (2) reading aloud to revise at the late stages.
Legal writing has long been criticized for being needlessly opaque. Typical speech, however, is rarely so incoherent. Most writing teachers, when faced with a confusing passage in a student work, will ask, “What did you mean here?” Usually, the student can speak a much clearer explanation of the passage than the passage itself. Professor Elbow says of this paradox, “the incoherence that comes from nonplanning is minor compared to the incoherence that comes from careful planning – unless it’s quite skilled.” In other words, while unplanned conversational speech may contain false starts, hesitations, and digressions, those aspects of speech do not interfere with the listener’s understanding nearly as much as certain aspects of planned typical writing can interfere.
Professor Elbow, however, is careful to qualify his practical advice. He recognizes that professional writing quires a final draft in “correct English.” But he proposes that until that final draft, writers should “speak onto the page” and ignore internal voices that nag and criticize when that speech doesn’t produce polished results.
In the end, as one reviewer noted, “[Professor] Elbow is his own best argument for speaking onto the page: His voice is both authoritative and affable, conversational and professorial.” Lawyers looking to silence their inner critics would benefit from “listening” to Professor Elbow’s book.