Thursday, April 20, 2006

Persuasion: literary references are risky

In my seminars, lawyers have reflected what I think is a broad consensus that in brief writing, literary references in general are risky and references to Shakespeare and the Bible are particularly problematic.

These kinds of references run the risk of--
  • being lost on the reader: the reader doesn't get the reference
  • alienating the reader: the reader views the author as arrogant or stuffy
  • offending the reader: the reader is not a fan of Shakespeare or is not a Bible believer
For me, those are enough reasons to avoid Shakespearean and Biblical references in my writing.

But there is another approach. Professor Charles Alan Wright suggested that literary allusions are acceptable as long as the text is intelligible even if the reader doesn't get the reference. Charles Alan Wright, Literary Allusion in Legal Writing: The Haynsworth-Wright Letters, 1 Scribes J. Legal Writing 1, 4 (1990).

It's a high standard to meet, but a good one.

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