What I Learned About Writing


I’ll never forget the professor in my Legal Writing class in my first year of law school who said that English majors struggle mightily in the class.  It was a moment I realized that lawyers are one of the worst writers out of professionals whose job primarily revolves around writing.  Lawyers use “effect” as a verb, “draft” letters instead of “write” them, love to speak about themselves in the third person, think “heretofor” (correctly without an “e”) is an acceptable part of normal writing and begin correspondences with a phrase like “Reference is hereby made to.”   If the legal profession wants to improve its image among the general public, a good place to begin would be to write like a normal person.

Legal writing is not really writing.  It’s putting words on paper that has a special meaning to a very limited number of people.  It lacks any interest in communication or creativity and it’s rather quite a bore.

This blog is where I escape the boredom.  I tell stories, convey thoughts and express opinions without being limited by convention or practice.  I’ll never forget this one time a partner asked me to write a piece to share a learning experience he had with a banker who called with a question.  Upon reading what I prepared, he commented, “I was hoping for something more like a story.”  I cracked a smile, then wanted to smack him.  Story is what I tell in this blog, where I can also experiment with different styles like numbered lists to parallel structures, traditional essays to fictional stories.  It’s not what I could or would write at work.

It’s said that reading makes you a better writer, but I think you can’t become a better writer unless you love to write and actually pursue that love frequently.  I’m neither articulate nor blessed with a large vocabulary so my skills as a writer is rather handicapped, but I’ve learned three very important lessons that I think have improved my writing.

The first is to have a thesis.  We’re taught to do this from our days in grammar school, but for the longest time, I didn’t know what it meant beyond having a topic sentence.  Thesis is more than just a sentence or a paragraph that summarizes what you are trying to convey, yet it’s not so amorphous as to be simply a theme.  A thesis is a thought or an idea that binds the entire writing together, but the important element is to have a single and concrete thesis to which every sentence or a paragraph relates.  In an 800 page essay, such as the one I write most frequently, this is a relatively simple task: I can be walking down a street, think of a topic to write about and recall couple good stories to share about it.  In much longer pieces, this task is more difficult.  When I wrote my senior thesis, for example, I didn’t know what my thesis was until it was near completion–part of the reason why the work was somewhat wanting.  Even a good fiction has a thesis, a message that accompanies a good story telling.  This is a skill I’m long away from mastering.

The other two lessons are corollary to the point about the thesis.  One is that not every good idea makes good writing.  I have more than 20 drafts of blog posts that I have not finished, and that I likely never will.  Those are ideas that seemed good in thought but didn’t develop when I tried putting them down in words.  When these bad writing ideas are forced into publication, you end up with a piece that you truly detest.  Our thoughts are, by their nature, random and disorganized and only by writing do you realize they can’t come together.  In essence, they are just thoughts and not a thesis.

The final lesson, to be concise, is the one I was forced to learn while I wrote a weekly business column for the Boston College paper.  In the first three years, the column was limited to 550 words, which turns out to be not much.  (This piece is around 660 words at this juncture).  The first draft of every column consistently went around 100 words over and I would spend the next hour or so trimming it to make the piece fit.  It was an exercise I initially resented, then the one I’d come to appreciate.  Just as some thoughts don’t develop into a thesis, not all thoughts relate to a thesis.  My writing had a tendency to ramble, but the 550 word limit really compelled me to get straight to the point.  The column eventually expanded to 650 words and I don’t have a word limit in this blog per se, but I’ve always kept that lesson in mind–I hope for the better.

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4 Responses to “What I Learned About Writing”


  1. 1 Chris Schroeck May 9, 2011 at 3:07 pm

    The further you progress in the legal profession, the more you tend to stray from concision. I was just at a legal seminar where we briefly discussed this issue. For instance, we tend to title something a “Last Will and Testament” when “Will” is sufficient. Or we will say that a court “Orders, Decrees, and Affirms” something, when we could just say “orders”, and it would have the exact same legal effect. Lack of concision is ultimately a lack of confidence in your knowledge of the law, because it springs from a desire to include all of the “magic words”, just in case you don’t know the right one. In the wrong hands, this can just result in a different type of legal malpractice. For instance, if a court order “ratifies, affirms, and incorporates” an agreement or stipulation, that’s just three ways of saying the same thing, but I have seen attorneys state it as “ratify, affirm, incorporate and merge” – that last word has a different meaning contrary to the first three, but attorneys will include it to attempt to cover themselves – in fact, they are really messing up by adding that fourth word.

    • 2 joesas May 15, 2011 at 1:06 am

      Chris,

      How interesting! I never thought about how extra words can create unintended consequences. It’s more intriguing that lack of concision is a result of lack of confidence. I think you’re absolutely right in that regard… I feel like my writing skills have devolved since I started at the firm.

  2. 3 Jay the Elitist May 9, 2011 at 9:18 pm

    You got mad writing skills. Forget the law job. Get a farm in Kansas, make 20,000 a year and just write novels.

    • 4 joesas May 14, 2011 at 12:07 am

      Elitist,

      Will you join me in retirement, b/c I’ve been told that I can live a great life in Birmingham 20k?


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