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April 2007
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June 2007

Writers prefer Courier

What font do writers use when composing? According to this article in Slate,1 many prefer to compose in Courier. The two main reasons seem to be: (1) Nostalgia. If they can’t enjoy the smell, feel, and sound of their typewriters, they can at least savor the appearance of the text. (2) Editing. A draft written in Courier looks like a draft, not like a final product, making it easier to accept its need for editing.

Here’s my suggestion: For on-screen composing, try Georgia, which is designed for on-screen reading.

1Hat tip to Matthew Stibbe.

Counting each shot

Today I happened to be reading Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002), and came unexpectedly across a lesson in storytelling. Or actually, two lessons.

In Atkins, a majority of the Court held that the Eighth Amendment prohibits execution of the mentally retarded. Justice Stevens, writing for the majority, wants to make the defendant’s mental retardation outweigh the heinousness of the crime. So he must downplay the crime. Notice how he does this:

At approximately midnight on August 16, 1996, Atkins and William Jones, armed with a semiautomatic handgun, abducted Eric Nesbitt, robbed him of the money on his person, drove him to an automated teller machine in his pickup truck where cameras recorded their withdrawal of additional cash, then took him to an isolated location where he was shot eight times and killed.

Justice Stevens relegates the murder to a subordinate clause, puts it in the passive voice, and describes it in just seven words. With no punctuation in Justice Stevens’s description, the reader can zoom past the murder without slowing down.

Justice Scalia, writing in dissent, has the opposite goal: he wants to show that the heinousness of the crime outweighs the defendant’s retardation. Notice how he accomplishes his goal:

After spending the day drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana, petitioner Daryl Renard Atkins and a partner in crime drove to a convenience store, intending to rob a customer. Their victim was Eric Nesbitt, an airman from Langley Air Force Base, whom they abducted, drove to a nearby automated teller machine, and forced to withdraw $200. They then drove him to a deserted area, ignoring his pleas to leave him unharmed. According to the co-conspirator, whose testimony the jury evidently credited, Atkins ordered Nesbitt out of the vehicle and, after he had taken only a few steps, shot him one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight times in the thorax, chest, abdomen, arms, and legs.

Justice Scalia adds details that Justice Stevens omits, including details about the victim. He puts all the action in active voice, with the defendant as the actor. And when he gets to the actual murder, he renders it in slow motion. He counts each shot.

Neither account is better than the other. Justice Stevens has one purpose; Justice Scalia has another. Each does a good job of describing the murder in a way that suits his purpose. Still, just as counting the shots worked for Bruce Springsteen, it worked for Justice Scalia.

Bryan A. Garner is coming to your town. Maybe.

If you’re in or near the cities listed below, then think about signing up for Bryan Garner’s traveling CLE show, The Winning Brief, with a new segment on The Winning Oral Argument. The Winning Brief is probably the best briefwriting seminar in the country. Participants in this seminar get copies of two of Garner’s books: The Winning Brief and his new one, The Winning Oral Argument. Trust me: if you sign up, your money will be well spent.

  • Dallas, May 29
  • Houston, May 31
  • New Orleans, June 1
  • Cleveland, June 4
  • Columbus, June 5
  • Chicago, June 7
  • Atlanta, June 8
  • Kansas City, June 12
  • Minneapolis, June 15
  • Philadelphia, June 18
  • Washington, DC, June 19
  • New York, June 21
  • Boston, June 22
  • San Francisco, June 25
  • Los Angeles, June 26
  • San Diego, June 27
  • Phoenix, June 29
  • Reno, July 10
  • Las Vegas, July 11

“[A]nd we got this from the horse’s mouthpiece ...”

Matt Conigliaro recommends Judge Farmer’s second opinion in Funny Cide Ventures, L.L.C. v. Miami Herald Publishing Co., No. 4D06-2347 (May 16, 2007). After reading it, so do I. According to Judge Farmer, here’s what prompted it:

I should state publicly my own resolution, made several months ago. I had decided that the style of some opinions could—and should—be unconventionally changed for greater openness to all readers. I would try to write some opinions in styles and tones calculated to make legal reasoning clearer for those without law degrees. Then came this case.

p.s. (5/18/07): For interesting commentary on Judge Farmer’s opinion, visit The California Blog of Appeal.

Monkey business

Today’s lesson in what not to do comes from Delaware, where the state’s supreme court reprimanded a lawyer for “undignified or discourteous conduct” in briefwriting. Delawareonline reports what got the lawyer in trouble:

The briefs were part of an appeal to Superior Court disputing a decision by New Castle County Board of License, Inspection & Review, in which he made several statements including that the county could appoint “monkeys” to the board and “simply allow the attorney to interpret the grunts and groans of the ape members and reach whatever conclusion the attorney wished from the documents of record.”

Hat tip to Legal Writing Prof Blog.

p.s. 5/10/07: The court’s decision is here. Hat tip to Legal Profession blog for the link.