Writing Style for Lawyers
Writing Style for Lawyers
By William Domnarski. He practices civil and criminal law in Southern California and is the author of four books, including Swimming in Deep Water, a collection of short essays about the legal profession.
Lawyers who want to become better writers should recognize good writing – fiction and nonfiction – as a resource they can mine, whatever they are composing. It is the nature of writing that we learn it from others.
The connection between what we read and what we write can be profound. Becoming a better writer is the sorting out of the self, even for lawyers. Lawyers have style in everything else they do. Why not in writing? A lawyer must also meet the demands and expectations of the reader, of course, but doing it with style is a good thing. The personal nature of all writing is one of many truths not delivered in law school or continuing legal education courses. Style reflects both the professional and the personal outlook of a writer; in developing a style, lawyers are confronting the fundamental question of who they want to be.
Style has a bad reputation among many lawyers, but that’s because they think it can detract from writing, that it evinces a self-conscious desire for attention. Better understood, style refers to the quality and type of thinking behind writing. Robert H. Jackson had a muscular but elegant style. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. had a smooth, balanced style. Writing style is the way we relate to the world when all we can use are words. Think of what you wear to court, and then think of how you write. The goal should be the same.
We all have to work with what we have, though there is no harm in the occasional daydream. I sometimes toy with the idea of how different my lawyering would be if I had a great voice, one like Mark Strong, the actor who, along with two other great actors with equally deep voices and classic British accents, starred in this year’s Super Bowl commercial for Jaguar. I’d kill in the courtroom with that voice – in my dreams, of course. But I might have a better chance mimicking Mark Strong’s voice than the prose style of any of my favorite writers.
We study what we like, and we borrow and steal from those we admire to forge the prose style we want. After a spell of studying, borrowing, and stealing, our writing becomes more natural. Many professional writers will tell you this helped them develop; they focused on what they liked and found a way to imitate it and make it theirs. For example, not many writers can dip into the metaphor and simile jar whenever they like, produce wit on demand, or spark an analogy. I certainly can’t, though I know where to go to read a master of figurative language to get in the mood (Peter De Vries is Exhibit A). I also know where to find a masterpiece of spatial description (the chapter “The Opium Den” in W. Somerset Maugham’s On a Chinese Screen). And, for a final example, I admire the explosive effects of using minor details to punch up an argument (see George Orwell’s essays “A Hanging” and “Shooting an Elephant” – especially his description of shooting the elephant where he thought its heart must be and seeing the thick blood that “welled out of him like red velvet”).
By monitoring our reactions to what we read – and learning which approach grabs us and in what way – we figure out how to grab others as well. But what matters most about analyzing the effectiveness of what we read is that it makes us active readers, conscious of the relationship between reader and writer. Then, when we turn from reader to writer ourselves, armed with techniques to improve our effectiveness, we can take the first step toward giving readers what they want. I’d say “’tis a consummation devoutly to be wished,” since it seems apt and sounds good and is, after all, Shakespeare. But the quotation refers to death, so I’ll recognize the dangers in using literary allusions and quit while I’m ahead.