How to Improve Your Legal Writing “Bird by Bird”
I’m not a fiction writer. For about a decade, I was, and in some ways, I still aspire to be. But for now I write on topics related to my industry and sometimes histories. I write what I believe to be truth. But in many ways, so does the fiction writer. And that is the intersection at which Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird applies to me and to you. Bird by Bird isn’t a book for lawyers or about lawyers, or as far as I can tell, even contemplates lawyers. But I’ll be darned if there aren’t some writing truths in there that can’t help us improve our legal writing and advocacy. For example, Lamott asserts:
“We write to expose the unexposed. If there is one door in the castle you have been told not to go through, you must. Otherwise, you’ll just be rearranging furniture in rooms you’ve already been in. Most human being are dedicated to keeping that one door shut. But the writer’s job is to see what’s behind it, to see the bleak unspeakable stuff, and to turn the unspeakable into words….”
Put yourself there in place of the writer. On our best, most altruistic, idealistic day, isn’t that what we aspire to? Not only to expose the monster in the closet, but to right a wrong.
The Terrible Task of Beginning
Sometimes, when I have a brief to write, I put it off for days or weeks. And it’s not just a matter of wanting large chunks of time to be able to work on it. It’s the fact that it can be daunting. Perhaps an unfamiliar aspect of law with which I’m largely unfamiliar. The awareness this is my singular opportunity to impress upon the court the validity of my position.
Lamott proposes an interesting technique for dealing with the overwhelm, and the gist is to focus on short assignments:
“I finally notice the one-inch picture frame that I put on my desk to remind me of short assignments. It reminds me that all I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. This is all I have to bite off for the time being.”
You don’t have to write your whole brief at once. Just one issue at a time, taken element by element.
The First Draft Doesn’t Have to be All That Good
The terrible task of beginning your work is made all the easier by knowing the first draft doesn’t have to be all that good. In fact, it can be pretty terrible because no one is going to see it but you.
“[T]he only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts. The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later.”
Having some experience under your belt will give you the confidence to know that really good concepts are contained in those “shitty” first drafts, and you can knead that messy pile into valuable and compelling arguments.
The Only Way to Write Compelling Material
Like I mentioned above, your motion (whether it’s seeking summary judgment, discovery sanctions, or dismissal of a case for other reasons) is your opportunity to convince the court your client deserves whatever relief you’re requesting. But if you’re seeking an extraordinary measure, you’re going to have to be terribly compelling. The only way to be compelling is to believe in what you are pitching.
“[Y]ou have to believe in your position, or nothing will be driving your work. If you don’t believe in what you are saying, there is no point in your saying it. You might as well call it a day and go bowling.”
Here’s my only caveat: if you are a defense lawyer, you probably shouldn’t just call it a day. You’re basically an hourly worker. I recommend you just turn to some doc review or some other menial-but-necessary task.
There are myriad other ways we could discuss improving our legal writing, but this is a blog post not a dissertation, so I’ll cut it off there for now. But remember these things. Starting your brief is tough, but you don’t have to do it all at once; Lamott includes a statement in Bird by Bird that was made by E. L. Doctorow: “[W]riting a novel [or in our case, a brief] is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” It’s important to remember, too, that trip is only worth making if you believe in it enough to convince others of its validity.
For more thoughts on improving your legal writing, read: How to Write Like Stephen King, and Why You Should.
Like I said early on, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird isn’t about legal writing. But it is about truth in writing. The book is honest, funny, and charming. If you’re at all interested in the process of writing, there is wisdom in Bird by Bird that can help you grow. You can find it on Amazon in just about any form you could want to own it.
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