Words are an essential tool of the lawyer’s trade: laws, rules, contracts, and briefs. So are all lawyers automatically good writers? Not necessarily.
Good writing starts with good reading. If you do not consistently read well-written publications, such as Harper’s, The New Yorker, or The Economist — or even well-written novels — then you can expect that your legal writing will eventually peak at a notch less than stellar. (Seattle Public Library members can read Harper’s, The Economist, The New Yorker, and many more excellent magazines for free online with Zinio.)
Superior legal writing takes practice, much as anything else takes practice. To develop that skill, reading is essential: rules of grammar, proper sentence structure, effective use of punctuation, and sound organization are all things that can be learned by the absorptive process of reading.
You cannot assume your writing will improve with time alone. “If you want to be a writer,” says Stephen King, “you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” Indeed, King is correct when he says, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”
Kill two birds with one stone and read well-written works about writing well. Authors and essayists such as Phillip Lopate (To Show and to Tell, Free Press, 2013; Portrait Inside My Head, Free Press, 2013) and John McPhee (a regular contributor to The New Yorker) are reliable resources for doing exactly that.
The New Yorker has an excellent piece available online about the nonfiction chieftain William Zinsser. If you have not already, I recommend you read it.
If you want to improve your legal writing, start by improving your reading habits. Simple as that.
- “The Ecstasy of Influence,” Jonathan Lethem, from The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfictions, etc.
- “On Keeping a Notebook,” Joan Didion, from Slouching Towards Bethlehem
- “On Style,” Susan Sontag, from Against Interpretation
- On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King
- “Why I Write,” George Orwell
One thought on “Read to Write: How Reading Makes You a Better Writer”
Your readers might enjoy the recent, hilarious book by Mary Norris, Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen. Norris recently retired from The New Yorker as a copy editor, and she wrote this book ostensibly to highlight the importance of proper grammar, punctuation,and spelling according The New Yorker’s style book and those ongoing struggles to get famous writers to accept/conform to the New Yorker’s way of writing, That’s just a disguise, though: the book is a demonstration of what both precise, excellent writing and excellent written humor should look like, among which are topics like why “the colon is a very controlling gesture . . . [which] says, ‘right this way,’ like a proper English butler.”
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