Appellate Advocacy Blog

Editor: Tessa L. Dysart
The University of Arizona
James E. Rogers College of Law

Saturday, January 15, 2022

Unconventional Writing Tips

The best writers know when to break the rules. They know when to forget everything they learned in legal writing and disregard conventional grammar and style rules. Simply put, they know when to be unique and original. Below are ten unconventional writing tips that can enhance the quality and persuasive value of a brief (or any type of writing) and highlight your authentic voice as a writer.

1.    Don’t write.

The best way to write an excellent brief, story, or script is to not write at all. Yes, you heard that correctly. Stay away from your computer. Avoid the temptation to write a revolting and blood-pressure-raising first draft simply because you want to “get something on paper.” That “something” will be the equivalent of nothing. Instead, spend time reading great writing.

Most importantly, think before you write. Brainstorm. Carry a small notepad with you and, among other things, write down ideas as they come to you and create an outline of your legal arguments. In so doing, be sure to reflect on your arguments and the likely counterarguments you will face. And remember that excellent thinking leads to excellent writing.

2.    Don’t let anyone read your first draft – or your final draft.

Some people believe that, after spending many hours on, for example, writing and rewriting an appellate brief, they cannot “see the forest for the trees” and need a set of “fresh eyes” to critique their work. The best writers know that this belief is often mistaken. Allowing others to review your writing can often do more harm than good; many suggested revisions reflect differences in style, not quality.

Additionally, many comments will be irrelevant or unhelpful, such as “did you cite the correct cases and check to make sure that they are still good law?” or “are there other counterarguments that you should consider?”

Yeah, whatever. Go away.

Others will offer annoying comments, such as “you should consider using the Oxford comma, and I also saw areas where maybe an em dash would have been appropriate” or “sentences should generally be no longer than twenty-five words but on page twenty, one of your sentences had twenty-seven words,” or “at least for me when I see a sentence with the passive voice, I hit the delete button immediately,”

Yes, and your comments about my writing have just been deleted.

The worst are the ones who offer ambiguous comments, such as “have you thought of restructuring the argument section?” or “in some instances, I thought your arguments were repetitive, but I could see where that might be effective,” or “in my opinion, the question presented doesn’t work because it seemed a bit wordy to me. But if you like it, keep it.”

None of this is helpful. If anything, it could cause you to overthink and doubt yourself. Worse, it could cause you to make changes that worsen your brief and weaken your voice.[1]

The moral of the story is that sometimes, too many cooks will spoil the broth. But if, for whatever reason, you must have someone review your writing, make sure you choose the reviewer carefully. In so doing, remember that one aspect of great writing is developing your unique style and voice as a writer, and not letting that style be compromised by others.

3. “Write drunk. Edit sober.”[2]

To be clear, this does not mean that you should consume a handle of Tito’s vodka when writing a first draft (a couple of glasses of Duckhorn sauvignon blanc should suffice). Rather, it means that you should be in a mindset where you can think freely and creatively without inhibition or reservation, and where you can coherently and concisely communicate your ideas.

If you aren’t in this mindset, your first draft may be gobbledygook. It may turn some people to stone. It may evoke images of the burning gym in the 1976 movie Carrie after Carrie finished exacting her revenge at the prom. And it may require you to delete everything on your computer screen and write another first draft. That may make you open that handle of Tito’s vodka, which is not advisable.

4.    Invent words.

Don’t be constrained by dictionaries. And don’t confine yourself to conventional or boring words. Rather, invent words – most commonly eponyms – that convey important ideas.

Think Obamacare.

Think Bushisms.

Think Californication.

What do these words do? The enhance the persuasive value of your argument. Indeed, a single invented word can implicitly convey arguments that so many attorneys feel the need to express explicitly. Think about it: when you hear Bushisms, it immediately brings to mind words that the former president invented, such as strategery. We all know the point that makes.

5.    Sometimes, throw IRAC/CRAC in the proverbial garbage.

In law school, particularly legal writing classes, students are taught to use the IRAC/CRAC (or CREAC) structure when drafting a brief. This is excellent advice and certainly helpful in many contexts.

Sometimes, however, the IRAC/CRAC formula can be, well, too formulaic. And it can undermine the persuasiveness of your legal analysis. This is particularly true where the facts are favorable to you and suggest strongly a ruling in your favor.

Consider the following examples of an introductory statement in a brief in a case where a defendant shot and killed another person with an AR-15 after the person, who was one foot shorter than the defendant, shoved the defendant and immediately thereafter began walking away. The defendant claimed that he was acting in self-defense.

Based on the relevant law and facts, the defendant’s self-defense claim lacks merit. It is well settled that a self-defense claim requires defendants to demonstrate that they subjectively believed that they were in fear of imminent grave bodily harm or death. Additionally, that belief must be objectively reasonable, meaning that a reasonable person would have feared that grave bodily harm or death was imminent. As such, disproportionate responses to a fear of harm do not constitute self-defense. Lastly, the claim of imperfect self-defense is not recognized in this jurisdiction. In this case, the defendant cannot…

Blah, blah, blah.

Why should a court have to endure this paragraph when: (1) the law of self-defense is well-settled in this jurisdiction, and (2) the facts show indisputably that the self-defense claim is utter nonsense? It shouldn’t. Blame CRAC. Then toss it out the window, get to the point, and write this:

The defendant is 6’7”. The victim was 5’7”. The victim shoved the defendant to the ground and immediately walked away, posing no direct or indirect threat to the defendant. The defendant could have – and should have – walked away too. Instead, the defendant decided to retaliate against the victim. Not by contacting law enforcement. Not by shoving the victim. Not by punching the victim. But by retrieving a semi-automatic weapon – an AR-15 – and shooting the victim twice in the head, killing him instantly. Now, the defendant claims that he was acting in self-defense. But that defense requires the defendant to show that the deadly force he used was objectively reasonable – and thus proportionate – to a threat of grave bodily harm or death. That threat never existed – except when the defendant decided to kill the victim with an AR-15. End of story.

Of course, this isn’t a perfect example, but you get the point. Sometimes, start with the facts. Then, include a very brief statement of the law. In some instances, it is more persuasive than adhering to a conventional formula.

6.    If it sounds good to the ear, write it and keep it.

When drafting a brief, a book, or a movie script, the worst thing that you can do is adhere unquestionably to formulaic writing or comply rigidly with strict grammar and style rules such as:

Don’t use passive voice.

Don’t end sentences with a preposition.

Don’t mix verb tenses.

This approach essentially turns you into a robot, not a writer. It means you aren’t thinking creatively based on the specific facts of your case – or thinking at all. This is not to say, of course, that grammar and style rules don’t matter. In many instances, they enhance the quality and the readability of your brief. The most important rules, however, are these:

Use common sense.

Trust your judgment.

Rely on your instincts.

After all, you want the reader to see you as a relatable and likable human being and, sometimes, that means breaking the rules. But how do you know when to break the rules? It’s simple: if it sounds good to the ear, write it and keep it.  Be sure, however, that what you hear – and write – is grammatically correct.

7.    Get a little nasty sometimes.

People like those who aren’t afraid to be edgy. To be witty. To be controversial. That type of writing shows that you are authentic – and that’s a great quality to have as a writer and person. Put simply, your writing should reflect your passion and your conviction.

To be sure, getting a little nasty doesn’t mean being an unprofessional jerk. But it does mean calling out bullshit when you see it. It does mean forcefully attacking arguments (not adversaries) in a raw and unapologetic manner.

Imagine, for example, that you are representing a defendant accused of murdering his wife. The evidence is largely circumstantial and based on the testimony of two eyewitnesses. On the eve of closing arguments, the prosecution discloses to you a document summarizing a DNA test that was performed on blood found on the murder weapon six weeks before the trial started. The DNA did not match the defendant’s DNA. You immediately move for a mistrial but the court denies it after the prosecution claims that the document had been lost and was found only an hour before it was disclosed to the defense. Your client is convicted and sentenced to life in prison. You appeal.

In your appellate brief, you should dispense with the niceties and professional courtesies, and call out the bullshit.  Consider the following:

Once again, we have a prosecutor who, at the eleventh hour of a murder trial, claims the equivalent of a student alleging that ‘the dog ate my homework.’ Specifically, the prosecution stated that it somehow “lost” evidence that exonerated my client, only to “find” it after the defense had rested its case and just before the jury began deliberations. The prosecution’s excuse is about as authentic as the tooth fairy and reflects a brazen disregard for the facts, the law, and my client’s life. In short, it’s bullshit. The result is that an innocent man is in prison, and if the conviction is affirmed, this court will essentially be saying that the dog did eat the student’s homework.

Yes, this paragraph is quite strong and, some would argue, over the top. Who cares? Stop worrying so much about how the reader will react – and what the reader might prefer – and focus on expressing your authentic voice.

After all, the prosecution’s behavior suggests strongly that misconduct occurred and that an innocent man is in prison for the rest of his life. How would most people, including the defendant and his family, react to such unethical behavior? They’d be furious. Your writing should, within reason, reflect the rightful indignation that should result from that injustice.

8.    Don’t edit too much.

Some writers just can’t stop editing. They just can’t stop rethinking, rewriting, and revising their work. Most of us have encountered these types. They say things like, “Do you think we can make an argument that cease has a slightly different meaning than desist?” or “This sentence is twenty-six words and sentences should only be twenty-five words, so what word should I take out?” or “I decided to delete the revisions to the revisions to the revisions because I don’t think they convey the point clearly” or “The Supreme Court case I cited about the summary judgment standard was from four years ago. We need to find a more recent case.”

These people are so annoying and truly don’t see the forest for the trees.

The problem with excessive editing is that it rarely improves to any substantial degree the quality of a brief. Rather, it often reflects a lawyer’s insecurities and addiction to perfection, which results in devoting every possible second before a deadline to editing. It’s a waste of time. What’s more, excessive revisions can weaken the authenticity and passion of your writing.

Accordingly, don’t overthink or overwrite. Trust in yourself. Let your authentic voice and passion show and remember that the reader isn’t focused on whether your sentence is twenty-five or twenty-six words. The reader is focused on the substance and persuasiveness of your arguments.

9.    Write like a human being.

Readers form perceptions of both the quality of writing and the writer. For that reason, it’s critical to write in a style that shows you to be credible, likable, and relatable. What are some ways that you do that?

Be conversational.

Be humorous (in appropriate circumstances).

Be straightforward.

In other words, lighten up on the formalities and resist the temptation to portray yourself as a master of the verbal section on the SAT. Do not, for example, write statements like “It is axiomatic that the First Amendment protects the right to free speech.”

Huh? Have you ever heard anyone use the word axiomatic during a conversation?

Imagine if you were on a date and your date said, “It is axiomatic that we have a great connection.” Um, that would be weird. And the connection would probably be gone.

People don’t talk like that. You shouldn’t write like that.

Justice Elena Kagan is a perfect example of what it means to speak and write like a human being. Kagan’s opinions display a conversational, authentic, and relatable tone that connects with the reader. Consider the following passage from one of Kagan’s opinions:

Pretend you are financing your campaign through private donations. Would you prefer that your opponent receive a guaranteed, upfront payment of $150,000, or that he receive only $50,000, with the possibility that you mostly get to control - of collecting another $100,000 somewhere down the road? Me too. That’s the first reason the burden on speech cannot command a different result in this case than in Buckley.[3]

The key here is “me too.” It relates and develops a connection to the reader. And few can forget one of Kagan’s humorous responses during her confirmation hearing. In response to the question of where she was on Christmas day, she replied “You know, like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant.”[4] The questioner’s response? “Great answer.”[5]

Indeed, it was.

10.    Ask questions.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions in your brief; doing so can enhance your argument’s narrative force. For example, in Obergefell v. Hodges, Chief Justice John Roberts dissented from the Court’s decision holding that the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause encompassed a right to same-sex marriage.[6] In so doing, Roberts wrote as follows:

The majority’s decision is an act of will, not legal judgment. The right it announces has no basis in the Constitution or this Court’s precedent. The majority expressly disclaims judicial “caution” and omits even a pretense of humility, openly relying on its desire to remake society according to its own “new insight” into the “nature of injustice.”… As a result, the Court invalidates the marriage laws of more than half the States and orders the transformation of a social institution that has formed the basis of human society for millennia, for the Kalahari Bushmen and the Han Chinese, the Carthaginians and the Aztecs. Just who do we think we are?[7]

Roberts’ question at the end underscores his point that the Court’s decision was predicated on the justices’ policy preferences, and not on the Constitution.

So, again, don’t be afraid to ask questions or be different in other respects. Excellent writing isn’t always about checking all the boxes to ensure that you’ve followed all the rules. It’s about telling the best possible story. It’s about writing with your heart and your authentic voice. Sometimes, that means making your own rules.

 

[1] Also, remember that most people who read your writing are cognizant of your effort and investment in your work. Thus, they will likely be reluctant to offer a blunt and candid assessment of your writing for fear of hurting you.

[2] Joe Berkowitz, “Write Drunk. Edit Sober. According to Science, Ernest Hemingway Was Actually Right (Jan. 4, 2017), available at: “Write Drunk. Edit Sober.” According To Science, Ernest Hemingway Was (fastcompany.com). (Note: This quote has been wrongfully attributed to Hemingway. It was said by Peter De Vries).

[3]  Laura K. Ray, Doctrinal Conversation: Justice Kagan's Supreme Court Opinions, 89 Ind. L. J. 1, 3 (2014), available at: Doctrinal Conversation: Justice Kagan's Supreme Court Opinions (indiana.edu)

[4] Id. at 1.

[5] Id.

[6] 576 U.S. 644 (2015).

[7] Obergefell v. Hodges, Excerpts from the Dissenting Opinions, available at: decision_excerpts_from_dissents_obergefell_student.pdf (landmarkcases.org) (emphasis added)

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Comments

Great content.

Posted by: فتح اقفال | Apr 11, 2022 2:51:41 AM

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