A writing “Christmas Carol” for the Scrooge-ish lawyer: 3 ghosts

Posted on 12-18-2015 by
Tags: giftgiving , writinglegally , LIT , Top Stories

Writing is vital to lawyers. At LexisNexis, our #writinglegally posts rank at the top in terms of our lawyer engagement. This notwithstanding, some lawyers still sour at legal writing.

“Bah humbug!” they say.

Not unlike Uncle Scrooge from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (published December 19, 1843), these lawyers are stingy when it comes to legal writing … stingy in form, substance, creativity, etc.

If you’re one of these unlucky lawyers, listen closely.

As you prepare for bed tonight, wearing your dressing-gown, slippers and night-cap, brace yourself for the ghost of Jacob Marley. Heed his ominous warning:

“You will be haunted," resumed the Ghost, "by Three Spirits. … Without their visits … you cannot hope to shun the path I tread.”

Hearken to these three spirits, and put yourself on a better legal writing path.

The Ghost of Christmas Past

A trip to the past, nearly 100 years ago to 1916, transports us to the publication of Robert Frost’s poem, The Road Not Taken. In his recently published book of the same name, The Road Not Taken, David Orr discusses what Frost’s poem means: Is it a hurrah to individual choice or a wink at self-deception? In answering this question, Orr pries apart singular words, noting , for instance, the subtle difference between “road” and “path” and the deeper meanings behind “sigh.”

“No,” said Scrooge, “No. I should like to be able to say a word or two to my clerk just now! That’s all.”

"To say a word or two" - a strong word or two - takes creativity and thought. Like “road” and “sigh,” words are nuanced.  Take, for example, the subtle difference between the verb “increase” and the more vibrant “boost.” Lazy writers ignore these nuances, plopping down whatever weak word comes to mind.

Optimize your words. In the past, you might’ve referenced your paperback thesaurus. Today, words can be optimized with your word processor’s “synonym” function. Or Google any word + “definition” to find a list of synonyms.

The Ghost of Christmas Present

“Is there a peculiar flavour in what you sprinkle from your torch?” asked Scrooge.

When I attended law school, legal writing rarely, if ever, had a “peculiar flavour.” It lacked the leverage to escape the academic orbit - stuffy, buttoned up and rigid. But today, social media and blogging have given legal writing the “peculiar flavour” it needs. Some lawyers don’t get this. Their digital writing collects dust.

First lesson to be learned: social media benefits from a little peculiarity. If you have a Twitter/LinkedIn account, don’t fear the grammar police. They’re gasping for air in social media. Misspellings are still a no-no, but with all the social media noise, abbreviations, ellipses, oddities, etc. are vital for your posts and their discovery.

The second lesson: today’s blogging isn’t yesterday’s law review.  You have permission, as a legal genius, to be a creative blogger. With some “peculiar flavour,” securities or banking law, for example, can be made entertaining.  The legal writers who get this, they’ve paired employment law with Star Wars, social media law with Depeche Mode, and evidentiary rules with NPR’s “Serial” podcast. In a nutshell, fun and legal writing can now coexist.

The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come

“Ghost of the Future!” he exclaimed,” I fear you more than any Spectre I have seen. But as I know your purpose is to do me good … I am prepared to bear your company ….”

This ghost will invoke fear because it demands work but with the purpose to do you good. Quick writing tips are fine, but a writing education is better. You can advance your writing and professional future by investing time in a writing book. It takes a future commitment – more than the quick tip -  but deep reading is vital to honing your writing skills.

Five of my favorite writing/communication books for your future reading:

Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath

Why do some ideas thrive while others die? And how do we improve the chances of worthy ideas? In Made to Stick, accomplished educators and idea collectors Chip and Dan Heath tackle head-on these vexing questions. Inside, the brothers Heath reveal the anatomy of ideas that stick and explain ways to make ideas stickier, such as applying the “human scale principle,” using the “Velcro Theory of Memory,” and creating “curiosity gaps.”

Vex Hex Smash Smooch by Constance Hale

Writers know it instinctively: Verbs make a sentence zing. Grammar gurus agree: Drama in writing emerges from the interplay of a subject (noun) and a predicate (verb). Constance Hale, the best-selling author of Sin and Syntax, zooms in on the colorful world of verbs. Synthesizing the pedagogical and the popular, the scholarly and the scandalous, Hale combines the wit of Bill Bryson with the practical wisdom of William Zinsser. She marches through linguistic history to paint a layered picture of our language―from before it really existed to the quirky usages we see online today. She warns about habits to avoid and inspires with samples of brilliant writing. A veteran teacher, Hale gives writing prompts along the way, helping readers “try, do, write, play.” Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch guides us to more powerful writing by demonstrating how to use great verbs with style.

Words That Work by Dr. Frank Luntz

In Words That Work, Luntz offers a behind-the-scenes look at how the tactical use of words and phrases affects what we buy, who we vote for, and even what we believe in. With chapters like "The Ten Rules of Successful Communication" and "The 21 Words and Phrases for the 21st Century," he examines how choosing the right words is essential.

How to Write Short by Roy Peter Clark

In HOW TO WRITE SHORT, Roy Peter Clark turns his attention to the art of painting a thousand pictures with just a few words. Short forms of writing have always existed-from ship logs and telegrams to prayers and haikus. But in this ever-changing Internet age, short-form writing has become an essential skill. Clark covers how to write effective and powerful titles, headlines, essays, sales pitches, Tweets, letters, and even self-descriptions for online dating services. With examples from the long tradition of short-form writing in Western culture, HOW TO WRITE SHORT guides writers to crafting brilliant prose, even in 140 characters.

Microstyle: The Art of Writing Little by Christopher Johnson

Welcome to the age of the incredible shrinking message. Your guide to this new landscape, Christopher Johnson reveals the once-secret knowledge of poets, copywriters, brand namers, political speechwriters, and other professional verbal miniaturists. Each chapter discusses one tool that helps short messages grab attention, communicate instantly, stick in the mind, and roll off the tongue. Piled high with examples from corporate slogans to movie titles to product names, Microstyle shows readers how to say the most with the least, while offering a lively romp through the historic transformation of mass media into the media of the personal.

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