Superior legal writing’s damn hardest discipline …. walking away

Posted on 04-29-2016 by
Tags: blogging , LIT , olympics , writing , Top Stories

Long ago, I wrote legal briefs for a solo practitioner. My typical process: vomit the law on paper, shuttle it to my boss, scribble down his edits. This haphazard speed was commanded by our deadlines and client demands … i.e., crunch time demanded rapid output. But what’s good for output isn’t good for quality. As a self-proclaimed speed writer, I churned out some crappy briefs.

Eventually, I discovered the cure for my crappy writing. It’s a potent cure but a cure many lawyers will find hard to swallow.

Lock Your Briefs in a Drawer

You read that right … “lock your briefs in a drawer!” Not “briefs” as in underwear, but the legal brief you just drafted. The potent (yet painful) cure for mediocre legal writing is to padlock your first draft and then walk away.

Potent because a cooling period will give you fresh eyes.

Painful because you’ll hate the wait.

But Don’t Trust Me: Trust Stephen King

The will-to-wait.

Will it make you a great legal writer?

Not necessarily.

But a better legal writer?

This it’ll do.

The sacrifice, if made, is an equalizer because a patient writer, though only a good writer, will always gain ground on the great writer who strains at the leash.

Initially, this discipline of writing-then-waiting was the antithesis of my rush to write, my impatience with inactivity. Only after several starts and stops did the pain subside and it finally stick. It’s the damn hardest tool for writing well, partly because not writing produces zero word count … your momentum ceases. At first glance, this contradicts Stephen King’s On Writing, where King stressed the significance of productivity:

If you want to be a writer, you do two things well above all others; read a lot and write a lot.

But it’s King’s further advice that mandates an addendum: to be a writer, you must “write a lot,” but you must also learn to wait. Here’s King’s directive on “the wait”:

How long you let your book rest – sort of like bread dough between kneadings – is entirely up to you …. During this time your manuscript will be safely shut away in a desk drawer, aging and (one hopes) mellowing. Your thoughts will turn to it frequently, and you’ll likely be tempted a dozen times or more to take it out … Resist temptation.

Waiting’s power is in seeing your writing anew. King describes it as:

[After a layoff] you’ll recognize it as yours … and yet it will also be like reading the work of someone else, a soul-twin perhaps. This is the way it should be, the reason you waited. It’s always easier to kill someone else’s darlings than it is to kill your own.

King recommends a six-week wait (minimum), but that’s a lifetime in legal writing. As I said, our pens race against deadlines and client demands, a very different pace than that of the novelist. I practice a two-day wait after any first draft, but I’ve found that even a single day between writing and editing helps.

The time of wait is, as King says, “entirely up to you.” 

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