Monday, June 25, 2007

Austin Lawyer magazine: Improving your writing

Improving your writing
By Wayne Schiess (Originally appeared in Austin Lawyer, June 2007)

You know you shouldn't stop working on your writing just because you're out of law school. Legal writing is like any skill or any substantive topic: there is always more to learn and there is always room for improvement. But you're busy. Do you have time to work on your writing?

I say you do, and here are two suggestions: You can improve with modest efforts at study and practice.

You must study the principles of good writing, and you must keep studying consistently. But how, when you're busy?

Set a goal to read one book on writing every year. One per year. You can do that, right? There are a lot of good books on legal writing out there, but here are three I like:
  • Kimble, Lifting the Fog of Legalese
  • Stark, Writing to Win: The Legal Writer
  • Goldstein & Lieberman, The Lawyer's Guide to Writing Well
Then get a writing guide and keep it by your computer. Garner's The Redbook is the best guide for legal writing, but you might also use the Chicago Manual of Style or another general writing guide. The idea is to have a handy reference to answer questions: Do I need to capitalize this word? How do I use the dash? Am I using this word correctly? And so on. Plus you inevitably increase your overall writing IQ whenever you serendipitously stumble upon an interesting entry.

Now put some legal writing into your CLE. Okay, so maybe you're a strong writer and maybe the course is nothing but review for you. Still, how can that hurt? We all need refreshers, and there's a good chance you'll learn something new, something that will make you a better writer.

You're reading, you're consulting references, and you're taking some legal-writing CLE. You're becoming an informed critic of legal writing. Now practice what you are learning.

Train yourself to be a ruthless editor of your own work. Although you may not have time for this on every project, on at least some projects, make time for a thorough and careful editing and revising process. See how good you can make it. You'll learn a lot from that.

Experiment with things you are learning. Try new techniques; develop mastery of new approaches to writing.

Now here's the hardest part: Seek and welcome critiques and candid suggestions for improving your writing. It's tough, though, because it's natural to be defensive and protective of your writing. I know I am. But when I avoid critiques, I don't improve as much. So be open to critiques. And try get the critiques from someone knowledgeable-someone who has read the sources on good writing.

Good luck.

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