Friday, February 17, 2012

Read Widely to Improve Your Legal Writing

Read Widely to Improve Your Legal Writing


Many of us lawyers are practitioners in the art of deep reading. Deep
reading is getting into the complete line of published and unpublished
cases in your niche, footnotes and all. Deep reading is also tackling
the treatises and journals on that niche. Make no mistake. Deep
reading is necessary for mastery (which also happens to be the name of
a book I recommend below), and can help you become a great lawyer.

And deep reading is better than no reading.To paraphrase best selling
author Stephen King (and any untold number of writers who have
anything to say about the subject of writing):

If you don't read, you don't write.

At least, you don't write very well.

Three Benefits of Wide Reading

But deep reading, as I describe it, is the opposite of wide reading.
You may have been told to "read widely," but what does that do for
you, exactly? How does that help you improve your legal writing? How
might it help you become a great lawyer?

Here are the three benefits of wide reading:

Every piece of writing instructs. This applies to the good, the bad,
and the overtly commercial, like how-to writing. Take so-called craft
books, for example. Craft books attempt to teach the "writer's craft."
There are many craft books on the market, promising to help you write
your bestselling novel in 90 days, stoke your latent creative genius,
and help you punch through stubborn writer's block. I've read plenty
of them. Craft books sell because they make implicit promises to the
reader: You, too, can become a published author or a better writer or
both. Many craft books hoodwink the reader into thinking it's really
possible to write a novel in a week, a month, whatever—they don't tell
you that you'll probably not write a good novel. But there are some
craft books that are worth the read. Read William Zinsser's On Writing
Well, which taught me to redefine "literature" as more than the
writing produced by 19th century novelists. Zinsser argues that good
literature is nothing more than a compelling story, well told.

Yes, your legal writing can be interesting to read. Lewis Thomas was a
physician who also happened to write very well. His subject was
science and medicine. His essays weren't drab little pieces of
technical writing, filled with needless complexity and overwrought
jargon. His writing easily could have been, but, then again, I
wouldn't be writing about him now. His The Lives of a Cell
demonstrates how science writing can be done. Atul Gawande's
Complications is another example. Take your lessons from writers like
Thomas and Gawande—despite the fact that they're doctors, not
lawyers—and try to do the same thing with your legal writing.

Reading is the ultimate in self-help. If you're not committed to wide
reading, you will shortchange your development in legal writing.
Unfortunately, many of us place reading pretty low on our list of
priorities. Often it's because we're simply too busy to read anything
that isn't sent to us on law office letterhead, or we're doing the
deep reading thing with the cases and statutes. If you're serious
about improving your legal writing, and you also want to try wide
reading, you might do well to read George Leonard's Mastery. This is a
quick read, but there's incalculable value here if you follow his
advice. He describes the three personality types of those who aren't
on the path of mastery—the Hacker, the Dabbler, and the Obsessive—and
then describes an alternative path, the path of mastery, which is the
long-haul path. Ultimately, the path of mastery is the only way to get
better at legal writing.

Brought to you by: Lawyer Asad

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