Saturday, November 10, 2018
"To be a good legal writer, honestly, is to know the law, and to be a good writer." -- Justice Elena Kagan
Improving your writing muscle is like improving any muscle: it takes a long time and a lot of effort. Because even after you learn a new writing tool--say, by reading an article or listening to a lecture--it takes extra work for that tool to become part of your everyday writing habit. And if it's not habit, good luck remembering it at 3 a.m. as you pound out a brief.
For law students and young lawyers, a big struggle is simply not having enough writing tools committed to habit yet. And playing catch-up is tough. They are still trying to figure out how the law works, much less the nuances of writing craft. For those of us who begin our legal careers with some big grammar and style gaps--that just compounds the problem.
As a legal writing teacher, this is an eternal struggle. I sympathize with my students who feel attacked on all sides: not only must they learn how to wrangle all these legal concepts, but now they're expected to be a top-notch writer, too. And I'm not sure which is more difficult. For foreign lawyers, simply writing grammatically can feel overwhelming.
But fear not, because like so many other things, technology can help. There are now incredible programs that can do wonders for helping you catch problems in your writing--and learn new writing tools while you're at it. What these programs do best is flag style bumps, which not only helps proof your document, but helps you get better at spotting the problems yourself. I find myself using these programs more and more to help students plug their grammar gaps and ease the burden of having to be both advocate and editor.
In this post and next week's, I'm going to walk you through some of the most exciting automated grammar and style tools out there. In each post we'll look at a few tools that will help with your editing; then a few that will help you learn some new writing moves for yourself.
1. To help you spot more edits: ProWritingAid, Word Rake, White Smoke, and Grammarly
Every month there seems to be a new editing tool on the market. I try to demo each one as I find them--and there are some big differences in their capabilities.
ProWritingAid: The powerhouse of style
For me, this might be the most exciting program because of how many editing tools it has under the hood. PWA gives you more editing suggestions than Grammarly. And it offers new, exciting ways to see your writing mechanics. I love having my law students use this tool when they're learning about sentence length and structure.
On style, PWA catches things that many other checkers don't--like repetitiveness. We all sometimes repeat a unique word too soon in our writing, which sounds off to the ear. PWA understands that and will flag them. You can see that PWA even color-codes the repeats.
PWA also helps shore up all sorts of other style tools: like missing transitions, pronoun problems, cliches, vague wording, sentence-length variation, over-dependence on adverbs, passive voice, and over-complicated sentence constructions (In other words, a good chunk of the things we all painstakingly edit for).
It has one of the coolest style-analysis tools that I've ever seen. PWA gives you a visual snapshot of your sentence lengths throughout your document, helping you home in on the important places to start editing. For law students and young lawyers, I find that looking at visual and data-driven analysis of their writing gives them a whole new perspective.
PWA also breaks down all sorts of writing dimensions: like your most commonly used words, your transition-word index--and so much more. Here is an analysis of a law review article:
PWA offers an awesome word finder that that will help you find that perfect concrete verb or descriptor you need to persuade. This tool is advanced: predicting which words or phrases will be most helpful for you given the context added by surrounding words. PWA can even help you find the perfect sounding words (if you're going for a rhetorical flourish).
Finally, PWA is pretty good in the learning department, too. It's not designed as a pure education tool, but it offers great explanations of the edits that it suggests.
Word Rake: The concise-inator.
I warn you: for legal writing nerds, this one may blow your mind (and feel a little like magic). Word Rake was built for one thing: conciseness. Click a button and the tool ripples through your writing, clearing away clutter and glue words to leave only those content-packed gems.
The founders have 9 patents on their clutter-clearing inventions. And the power of the technology shows.
A Grammarly alternative: White Smoke
White Smoke is less polished than Grammarly, but it boasts some features that the grammar-giant doesn't. White Smoke will catch tons of grammar problems that you would otherwise need to do by hand--like double negatives, subject-verb disagreement, tense shifts, and those pesky dangling modifers.
The ever-popular (and rightly so) Grammarly.
There is a reason that Grammarly is the most popular editing tool on the market: it's good. Grammarly operates smoothly and catches many of the important edits. It's easy to use and fast. And the company is always adding new tools. Grammarly is also pretty good in the teaching department, explaining most of the edits that it suggests.
Grammarly has an updated reports feature, which gives you analysis of your writing style. This is helpful for setting writing goals and tracking your improvement.
2. To teach you some new writing moves: Noredink, Hemingway App, and Writing Like a Lawyer
One of the most common questions I get is: how do I work on my basic grammar? A lot of us have grammar gaps coming into the law, and there is nothing that kills credibility faster than glaring grammar mistakes in your legal writing. Luckily there are some great programs for the basics. I'll cover the non-legal ones this week and explore the legal ones (Core Grammar, Writing Like a Lawyer, and others) next week.
Noredink: Grammar basics
Noredink is excellent for brushing up on every aspect of grammar and usage. Not only is it a comprehensive resource for grammar lessons--the developers created some neat, intuitive ways to practice.
Noredink is great for teachers, because you can setup your own custimizable course--focusing students on whichever grammar or usage issues you see them running into. I use it with my foreign law students all the time.
Hemingway app: a high-level writing highlighter
Hemingway app is a classic (and free). This tool will train you to spot long sentences, complex phrases, over-used adverbs, and passive voice. It's the easiest tool to use: just paste in your writing and it goes to work. Color-coded highlights will instantly show you what to work on.
See you next week!
Joe Regalia is a law professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, William S. Boyd School of Law and regularly leads workshops training legal writing and technology. The views he expresses here are solely his own and not intended to be legal advice. Check out his other articles and writing tips here.