As lawyers, our writing should be as compelling as our speaking. Stephen King offers five lessons that lawyers can incorporate to improve their writing.
I recently read Stephen King’s On Writing, which is easily one of the best and most practical books I have read in some time. Because writing is a part of my daily practice, it is something I am constantly seeking to improve. Here are my five takeaways from Stephen King’s memoir.
“I hate and mistrust pronouns, every one of them as slippery as a fly-by-night personal-injury lawyer.”
(Parenthetical aside: As a civil defense lawyer by trade, I have a particular affinity for the above sentence on a number of levels. But I’ll freely admit that although I remember the statement that a writer should not trust pronouns, I had forgotten, until I went back to do a little research for this blog post, about King’s simile that he incorporated into his comment about pronouns.)
The reason pronouns are treacherous is that by the time you’re halfway through a paragraph making your argument to the court or mediator or client, the reader has completely lost the trail of which person, place, or thing to which “he” or “that” or “those” belongs. Particularly, the things to avoid with pronouns are unclear antecedents and the omission of necessary clarifying phrases. Sometimes writing with continuous or consecutive uses of proper names feels clunky, but better clunky than unclear.
Weed Out Adverbs
“The adverb is not your friend.”
Before you read further, you should understand that King holds strong opinion about adverbs.
“The road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they’re like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day … fifty the day after that … and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions. By then you see them for the weeds they really are, but by then, it’s – gasp!! – too late.”
King’s larger point is that adverbs should be largely unnecessary because whatever sentiment you were going to express with your flowery adverb should be inferable from the context of your writing.
As for me, I like a good adverb, but now I’m conscientious about them. As you can see above where I used an adverb in explaining their being non-essential.
Avoid Passive Voice
“Verbs come in two types, active and passive. With an active verb, the subject of the sentence is doing something. With a passive verb, something is being done to the subject of the sentence. The subject is just letting it happen. You should avoid the passive tense.“
“The passive voice is safe. … I think unsure writers also feel the passive voice somehow lends their work authority, perhaps even a quality of majesty. If you find instruction manuals and lawyers’ torts majestic, I guess it does.”
“Two pages of the passive voice—just about any business document ever written, in other words, not to mention reams of bad fiction—make me want to scream. It’s weak, it’s circuitous, and it’s frequently tortuous, as well.”
King was more right than he likely knew. Legal writing is plagued with passive voice constructions. I find myself doing it. In some ways it’s easier. Passive voice is less aggressive, less assertive, less accusatory. And for those reasons it’s less compelling and effective. It’s more comfortable to say “The fire was caused by the wheel bearing failure” than to say “The defendant manufactured a faulty wheel bearing that failed and caused the fire.” But the latter sentence is likely a straighter route to making the intended point.
Implement the Right Word
“Remember that the basic rule of vocabulary is use the first word that comes to your mind, if it is appropriate and colorful. If you hesitate and cogitate, you will come up with another word – of course you will, there’s always another word – but it probably won’t be as good as your first one, or as close to what you really mean.”
This is an idea that Mark Train iterated more than a century previously, in a manner that has stuck with me for more than a decade now.
“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter. ’Tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”
“Omit needless words.”
In the spirit of being concise, I will not belabor the point – don’t use two words where one will do.
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You can and should purchase Stephen King’s On Writing, which you can find on Amazon.
Artwork by Mark Rain.