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Are good legal writers born or developed? -
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Are good legal writers born or developed?

(Note: You can access an updated version of this column here).

Are good legal writers born with writing ability, or can a lawyer become a good legal writer through mentoring, dedication to the craft, and hard work? This question isn’t new; many people have published their views on it, at least with respect to writing ability in general. (Jack Kerouac thought the question was important enough to publish an entire newspaper article on the subject, in which he concluded that writers are made, but genius writers are born.)

I decided to compare the views of two authors on opposite ends of the writing (and, most likely, political) spectrum—Bryan Garner (legal writing) and Stephen King (fiction novels)—to discover their thoughts on the nature-versus-nurture controversy. I summarize Garner’s and King’s views below, and then add my own take on the question.

Let’s start with Garner. In a 2002 article in the Student Lawyer, which he later adapted for a chapter in Garner on Language and Writing, Garner stressed the importance of teaching good legal writing in law school. He says that if you think you’re a good writer when you start law school—because, for example, you studied English or journalism as an undergraduate—you’re deluding yourself. He cites Gorham Munson’s claim in The Written Word (1962) that “professional writers, discounting even marked talent, say that nobody can be called a writer until he has written a million words, the equivalent of ten good-sized books.” As to whether good writers are born or developed, Garner says that good writers are not born with the innate ability to write:

[D]on’t ever believe that writers are born (not made). It isn’t true, any more than the idea that golfers or violinists or cooks are born. The fact is that even those with talent—Tiger Woods or Itzhak Perlman or Martha Stewart—have worked extraordinarily hard to develop their technique. It’s no different for writers.

Stephen King approaches the born-versus-developed question with more nuance. In On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, King says that “[w]riters form themselves into the pyramid we see in all areas of human talent and human creativity.” At the bottom of the pyramid are the bad writers; above the bad writers are the competent writers; above the competent writers are the “really good writers”; finally, at the top of the pyramid, are the great writers:

the Shakespeares, the Faulkners, the Yeatses, Shaws, and Eudora Weltys. They are geniuses, divine accidents, gifted in a way which is beyond our ability to understand, let alone attain. . . . [M]ost geniuses aren’t able to understand themselves, and many of them lead miserable lives, realizing (at least one some level) that they are nothing but fortunate freaks, the intellectual version of runway models who just happen to be born with the right cheekbones . . . .

King claims that it’s impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and that it’s equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good writer. But he also believes that “it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.” If you want to be a good writer, says King, you need to do two things: read a lot and write a lot, and then read a lot and write a lot, and do it over and over again. King also maintains that becoming a good writer isn’t easy: “[I]f you don’t want to work [hard], you have no business trying to write well—settle back into competency and be grateful you have even that much to fall back on.”

I agree with King more than with Garner on the born-versus-made question. Based on my own experience, as well as the anecdotes of others I know in the legal profession, there are lawyers who simply are innately talented legal writers. I loathe giving an example, but I will. As a first-year law student, Ryan Scott, now a law professor at Indiana University and former law clerk for the Tenth Circuit, had an extraordinary ability to write. As a law clerk at my former firm, his written work was far better than any writing I’d reviewed from other first-year-law-student clerks. Scott simply was gifted with the ability to write, and it was obvious to everyone who worked with him.

But like King’s assessment, I’ve also heard anecdotes about young lawyers who, no matter how much a firm works with them to improve their writing, never seem to grasp and then internalize even elementary concepts of good legal writing. So, for example, even if a superior repeatedly points out to the person that pursuant to is pure legalese, or that nominalizations and buried verbs should be reworked into active voice, or that Enclosed please find is silly and should be stricken from all correspondence, a month or two later the superior will see these legal-writing foibles in a letter, memorandum, or, worse, a brief filed with a court.

But I also agree with both King and Garner that there are “serviceable” and competent writers (I define “serviceable” writers as writers who are one level above bad writers and one level below competent writers. Unlike bad writers, their work doesn’t need to be completely re-done) who, with close mentoring, unwavering dedication, and tenacious hard work, can become good legal writers.

How do serviceable and competent writers make the transition to being good legal writers?

It’s simple: By actually caring about improving their writing.

Emerging good legal writers show that they actually care about becoming good writers by:

  • Getting legal dictionaries and usage and grammar books and actually referring to them when they need to resolve a thorny language, usage, or grammar question;
  • Accepting constructive criticism of their work and internalizing the concepts raised by that criticism. In other words, once emerging good writers learn a legal-writing concept or rule from others’ criticism, rarely will you find the same error in future work.
  • Not filing briefs, submitting memoranda to a superior, or sending letters to a client or opposing counsel containing obvious typographical and grammatical errors that could have been caught on one final close review;
  • Abhorring the recent phenomena of “making sausage,” even under incredible time constraints, and making sure that they have budgeted sufficient time to thoroughly revise their work before submitting it to a superior or a court;
  • Being excited about attending legal-writing CLEs like Garner’s Advanced Legal & Writing & Editing seminar,and welcoming the opportunity to learn new or refresh old legal-writing concepts at those seminars;
  • Having the confidence and assertiveness to explain respectfully to a superior the correct grammar or usage rule when the superior wants to make their writing worse (Example: a superior cutting the hyphens in phrasal adjectives such as breach-of-fiduciary-duty claim or common-benefit doctrine); and
  • Taking every opportunity to improve their legal writing by constantly seeking new writing projects to start slowly chipping away at Gorham Munson’s million-words-to-good-writing requirement.

So I don’t agree with Garner that any lawyer can become a good legal writer, a competent one, or, perhaps, even a merely serviceable one. There always will be bad writers who cannot be saved from themselves no matter how hard their colleagues might try. I also agree with King that great writers are in an untouchable class of their own. But I agree with both of them that if a lawyer is a serviceable or competent writer, there may be some hope for him to become a good legal writer if he practices daily the principles above.

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