Wednesday, January 18, 2023
Oscar Wilde once said that imitation “is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness.” Quite the backhanded compliment to the imitator. Or maybe he was trying to comfort those who had to endure cheap imitations of their greatness. Either way, if he meant that the great never imitate, I think he was wrong. In fact, there’s really no other way to become great at anything.
This dawned on me a few years ago when I read Scott Newstock’s How to Think Like Shakespeare: Lessons from a Renaissance Education. Newstock extracts elements of a Sixteenth Century English education and presents ways that they can help our thinking today. In one chapter, “Of Imitation,” he gives several examples of great writers who found their voice by copying those they admired as closely as they could manage. For example, Robert Lewis Stevenson said that when he read something he liked, he “set [him]self to ape that quality,” and that doing so was the only “way to learn to write.” “Before he can tell what cadences he really prefers, the student should have tried all that are possible; before he can choose and preserve a fitting key of words, he should long have practised the literary scales[.]” And after a time of such creative imitation, the writer would one day find his own voice.
That this same idea applied to legal writing came to me while reading Ross Guberman’s work. I started with his Point Made: How to Write Like the Nation’s Top Advocates. In it, he illustrates principles of good legal writing with examples from leading practitioners. I loved the examples, but didn’t realize quite how to extract ideas from them myself until I read a series of “how to write” posts on his blog (legalwritingpro.com). In “Five Ways to Write Like John Roberts,” or “Five Ways to Write Like Justice Kagan,” for example, he would take snippets he found particularly effective and then articulate exactly what they were doing. Things like “let your facts show, not tell”; “add speed through short and varied transitions”; and to use “light, varied, and logically interesting transitions.”
Carl Jung believed that it was the work of a lifetime to make the unconscious conscious. I think that’s how good writers approach improvement—they articulate the implicit in good writing, extract and distill it, and then try to use it themselves.
Once I realized this, I decided to try my hand at it, creating a series of posts on the legal writing styles of several current SCOTUS justices for the Appellate Advocacy Blog (lawprofessors.typepad.com/ appellate_advocacy/). It’s an ongoing project, but I hope that it illustrates to law students and practitioners alike how to think about writing in a way that will make them more effective at getting their points across. You may not be able to write like John Roberts or Elena Kagan, but you can find out what elements make their writing effective and use those same tools in your own style.
I don’t think that the principle is limited to echoing just good legal writing either—good writing is good writing, and if you can echo good literature or poetry, so much the better. This also includes good rhetoric, which I learned from Ward Farnsworth’s Classical English trilogy (Rhetoric, Metaphor, and Style). Repetition, for example, is one of the oldest tools of persuasion, but not all use it to equal effect. For example, any parent of a young child over the past few years will know the words to Baby Shark (do-do-do-do-do-do). But as that song incessantly bears witness, bare repetition is grating and usually unhelpful. But if you can repeat a point or a phrase while changing it up a bit, it becomes memorable and sticks in your reader’s/hearer’s mind. Lincoln used a rhetorical device called epistrophe—repetition at the end of a phrase—in his most famous address (“...of the people, by the people, for the people...”). Elegant repetition, using the same ending phrase but with a different beginning (there, simple prepositions), leaves a point ringing in the listener’s mind. And if your point is sticking in your audiences’ mind, you’re more likely to win them over. Again, you may not have Abraham Lincoln’s gifts, but neither did he, at first. And you can use the same principles he employed to get your point across.
We live in a world that often celebrates—and rightly so—those who innovate and create new things. But that celebration shouldn’t put us off from encouraging creative imitation. If it was good enough for Shakespeare and Lincoln, it’s good enough for you. Find good writing and think about what makes it good. Once you do, try your hand at doing the same thing. You’ll be surprised at how fast your writing improves. And you may just have some fun while doing it.
From my recent Utah Bar Journal article.