Here is an interesting old book that’s available online for free reading: The Art of Readable Writing (© 1949 by Rudolf Flesch). You may recognize Flesch’s name from those readability algorithms you’ve encountered, like the one built into Word. So far I’ve just read part of the first chapter—the part where Flesch says that Aristotle was wrong (or at least wrong about English). Anyone who writes expository prose should at least be acquainted with Flesch’s work. (Hat tip to Cheryl Stephens.)
The second edition of Matthew Butterick’s instant classic, Typography for Lawyers, has hit the streets. If you don’t have your copy yet, don’t fret; you can start improving your typography now. Just read and follow Matthew Salzwedel’s 10 Takeaways from Typography for Lawyers.
Today I attended a triple-feature CLE by Bryan Garner: Advanced Legal Writing & Editing, The Redbook, and Making Your Case. To see whether Bryan’s spring tour will visit your city, click here to see the schedule. What I want to talk about this evening is what I learned in the Redbook portion of the seminar.
For years, I have had the first edition of the Redbook on my office bookshelf. For those unfamiliar with this book, it’s a style manual for legal writers. If you have a question about the right word, right punctuation, or right way to do something in legal writing, this book endeavors to answer your question. I’ve found it a useful reference for answering questions that arisen when writing a brief or editing another’s brief.
First, this preface: I am not one who immediately buys the next edition of whatever if the current edition remains serviceable. I use so-called outdated versions of the Bluebook and ALWD Citation Manual, because they still answer any question I have ever had about how to cite something. So since the first edition of the Redbook has served me well, I did not rush out to buy the second or third editions.
Having said that, here is my point: if you don’t have the third edition, get it. Compared with the original edition, the content is substantially augmented by more than 200 pages, not counting the indices and tables of contents. Perhaps more useful (time will tell) is the detailed table of contents in the third edition. (Both the original and third editions have general tables of contents, but the original lacks the detailed table.) The detailed table of contents is just another means of finding whatever you’re looking for more quickly. And in our business, time is money. Anything that answers your question more quickly is worth the investment.
Bryan’s Redbook seminar is essentially a course in how to use the Redbook efficiently to find the answers to your questions on grammar, usage, and style. For me, the seminar was worthwhile. If you buy the book and take the time to get acquainted with the indices and the tables of contents, you may figure out for yourself how to zero in efficiently on the answers you’re looking for. It may just take longer than having someone teach you how to use the book efficiently. Me, I don’t have a lot of extra time. So anything that speeds up learning what I need to learn is worthwhile.
So if you are serious about being a professional writer (which all lawyers are), then you need the Redbook. The optional part is whether to take a CLE class in how to use it. My opinion: if you are going to use the Redbook, then a little CLE time in how to use it is not a bad investment of time or money.
Legal writing doesn’t have to be dull. In fact, with the right teacher, legal-writing lessons can be fun. Mark Cooney is the right teacher. His new book, Sketches on Legal Style, is fun, easy reading. It’s a collection of essays on legal writing, each delivered in a unique, humorous style. Two examples: “A Legal-Writing Carol” in the style of Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol”; “The Pleading,” a poetic lament in the style of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven.” Speaking of Dickens, this little book would be a great stocking stuffer for the law student or legal-writing geek in your life (including yourself!).
Today I received two books that I look forward to reading: How to Write Short by Roy Peter Clark, and Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch by Constance Hale. I’ve learned a lot from these writers’ prior books, so I’ll go into these with high expectations.
One thing I’ll suggest for anyone looking for reading material to become a better legal writer: Don’t stick to legal-writing books. It’s been said (I think by Bryan Garner) that good legal writing is just good writing applied to legal topics. So look for books by and for non-legal, non-fiction writers. Don’t get me wrong: there are many worthwhile books focused on legal writing. I’m just saying that if you really want to excel, if you want to be a leader rather than a follower, then you need to open your mind to ideas outside of whatever world you labor in.
Years ago, I bought and enjoyed reading Writing to Win by Steven D. Stark. Besides giving good advice about writing generally, that book also touched on every aspect of legal writing: briefs, discovery, correspondence, memos, contracts, and e-mail.
Steven now has an updated and revised edition of Writing to Win. Why the new edition? Because the world has changed since the first edition was published in 1999. Technology is more pervasive; people get their reading material on computer screens, smart phones, tablets like the iPad, and various other e-readers. These changes in the way readers read require corresponding changes in the way writers write. So Steven has revised and updated his book to help lawyers write more effectively in this new and continually changing age.
Joseph Kimble has a new book out, Writing for Dollars, Writing to Please. For as long as I can remember, Joe has been a champion for plain language. In this book, he continues that role; he shows what plain language is, debunks the myths about plain language, and collects impressive empirical evidence that plain language saves dollars and makes sense. Joe’s past writings on this topic have been classics; this book promises to be another.
Oxford University Press recently released the third edition of Bryan A. Garner’s dictionary of legal usage.
It’s Its predecessor, A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage (2d ed. 1995) is 16 years old, so it was due for an update. The third edition has a new title, Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage. It also features citations for illustrative quotations (the first and second editions omitted those citations). OUP lists the selling price as $65, but I got mine from Amazon.com for considerably less.
If you take your legal writing seriously, you need a book like this within arm’s reach of your desk.
For briefwriters of any level of expertise, I recommend Ross Guberman’s new book, Point Made. Ross offers 50 valuable briefwriting tips. But he doesn’t just tell you what to do: he shows you, through real-life examples taken from briefs written by 50 of the nation’s top advocates. I learned a lot from reading Ross’s book; I think you will too.
I’m reading Stanley Fish’s new book, How to Write a Sentence. It’s good. Stanley takes a structural approach to sentence-writing. It’s like the approach the C. Edward Good takes in his books, except that where Ed approaches structure grammatically, Stanley approaches it rhetorically.
Anyway, the reason for this post is for me to remember a thought on pp. 46–48 of Stanley’s book. There, Stanley analyzes this sentence from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen:
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”
Here is the part of Stanley’s commentary on this sentence that I want to remember:
The terms for this kind of sentence are many: aphorism, proverb, adage, dictum, apothegm, sententia, maxim. The name is less important than the form, which is the pithy pronouncement of wisdom in a manner that does not invite disagreement. Austen’s sentence does not quite fit the pattern: it’s a bit too long, and because attention is called to the absoluteness of the claim, that claim is ever so slightly undermined; “must be” in combination with “truth universally acknowledged” is a bit too insistent and allows us to suspect an author mocking her own absolute pronouncement. It may seem counterintuitive, but you’ll have a better chance of persuading readers that what you are about to say is universally acknowledged as a truth if you don’t actually use the phrase “It is a truth universally acknowledged.”