Improving Your Writing—Books that Actually Help (Part I)

By Abbie Cziok

I dreaded reading the required books in my legal writing classes. They all repeated the same predictable truisms and tricks: incomplete sentences are those that are incomplete; clear writers write clearly; never start sentences with “and.” And so on. Yet my teenage-like angst persisted, and I continued to ask: why should I care?

So I was delighted to discover that there are writing books out there that answer this question and actually help. I’ll review a couple of my favorite books in this multipart series.

First up, my favorite book that every young lawyer needs on his or her bookshelf is “Thinking like a Writer: A Lawyer’s Guide to Effective Writing and Editing,” by Stephen V. Armstrong and Timothy P. Terrell. This book explains the four principles of excellent writing. These principles help us to think differently about how we write and to learn to diagnose and fix our own writing problems.

Principles of Writing

The authors start out by explaining the value of letting our writing be guided by “principles” that are “broad and suggestive rather than specific and compulsory.” After all, this gray area is where attorneys make their money.

Similar principles guide our actions every day, like seeking justice through legal work, or respecting our friends (for example, by never (ever) (ever!) posting spoilers about Game of Thrones on Facebook. That’s a warning.) It only makes sense that some foundational principles should inform our writing.

The authors outline these four principles that they suggest we follow based on cognitive scientific research: (1) readers absorb information best if they understand its significance immediately; (2) readers absorb information best if its form mirrors its substance; (3) readers absorb information best if they can absorb it in pieces; and (4) readers pay more attention if the writer approaches material from a reader’s perspective.

Thinking Differently about Writing

The authors emphasize these principles in order to change how we think about writing at all levels of a document. The principles apply at the organizational level, and should encourage us as writers to include maps in our documents, to break the documents into pieces, and to emphasize the most important points in the most visible places within the document. The principles apply at the paragraph level, encouraging us to connect paragraphs to each other, to show the significance of a paragraph immediately, and to move from old to new information. And they apply at the level of sentences and individual words by urging us to present old information first, to put the most significant information at the end of long sentences, and to interrupt sentence flow if we need to make a significant point or highlight an important word.

The authors distinguish these principles from techniques, like those that I mentioned in the first paragraph. Importantly, the principles may demand that we occasionally ignore the techniques. The principles may even compel us to–gasp!–use the passive voice.

Diagnosis

The practice of law so often requires self-reliance. So what I like most about “Thinking Like a Writer” is that it teaches us to self-diagnose problems in our own writing. For example, I used to (and still often do—I am learning this stuff, too) read a paragraph and think, “this paragraph is confusing,” but wouldn’t know how to fix it. Now, I am learning to read a paragraph and diagnose the problem: “I don’t start with old information and then move to new. Thus, I’m overwhelming my reader with too much new information.” The book emphasizes this skill of self-diagnosis and the importance of being an intelligent editor. It has transformed the way I edit my own documents; my editing is becoming more surgery than triage.

Not convinced? Don’t want to read legal books in your downtime? I know sometimes I would rather water seaweed or alphabetize my cheerios, but I also like winning arguments, and this book has real potential to help you do that.

So go forth and write many sentences.


CziokHeadshotcropAbbie Cziok is a law clerk for Judge Furman on the Colorado Court of Appeals. In October, she will be starting as a fellow with the Civil Litigation Division of the Colorado Attorney General’s Office. In her free time, she likes to ski, climb rocks, and eat ice cream.

Posted in Legal Writing