10 Legal Writing Tips From Bryan Garner
Bryan Garner—in true Bryan Garner fashion—just emailed his edits for this post, as noted below. I hope this note meets his legal writing approval… — Ed.
I first heard of Bryan Garner while clerking for the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Minnesota. I was having a difficult time crafting an appellate brief on some case involving criminal fraud. My supervisor looked at me, pointed to his bookshelf and said, “Grab the red one.” He was pointing to Bryan Garner’s The Redbook: A Manual on Legal Style. As the saying goes, I would never be the same.
There’s little doubt that the man is a legal writing genius. Editor of Black’s Law Dictionary. Prolific writer of almost every book on legal style written in the last ten years (or at least the good ones), he now spends his time writing, interviewing judges about writing, and teaching lawyers how to write. I was lucky enough to join him for the latter on Tuesday for six hours as he schooled 40 Minneapolis lawyers in the fine points of “Advanced Legal Writing & Editing.”
I highly recommend taking Garner’s CLE yourself, or reading one of his numerous books on legal writing, but if you’re pressed for time, or want a few tips to tide you over until Garner next comes to your city with his LawProse CLE seminars, here are my top ten (paraphrased) takeaways from Garner’s “Advanced Legal Writing & Editing.” Agree? Disagree? Add your thoughts in the comments.
- You will never write as
goodas you read, so read seriously and for technique. Subscribe to The New Yorker, The Economist, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. After you’ve completed your legal research, but before you write your brief, pause, sit down, and read an article in The Economist. Then write. It will be a good tonic to your style.
- Be a lawyer who clarifies and not a lawyer who obfuscates. Judges will trust your writing and you will win more often, even when the merits are not in your favor.
- Learn how to write proper English. Buy a dictionary, thesaurus, and a writing usage book (or two). If you’re not careful with your grammar, judges will wonder what else you are not being careful with.
- Challenge inadequate and inefficient legal writing dogmas like putting citations in the body of your writing and double-spacing legal briefs whenever possible and appropriate, but don’t push your luck and lose your job in the process.
- Write a letter on your business’
stationaryeach day. If your handwriting sucks, work on that too. Allliterary people have a good hand.
- Don’t write it if you wouldn’t say it
outloud. A good brief should be able to stand up to a strong oratorical reading.
- Don’t bury your good content. It’s untrustworthy and ineffective. Emphasize and amplify what IS important in your writing. For example, on the first page of your brief clearly and concretely frame your legal and factual issues in a single paragraph no longer than 75 words that ends with the question mark.
- Find yourself a writing mentor or two. Find the best writers in your firm or department and gravitate towards them. Be careful – you can iron in bad habits as well as good.
- Write simply and clearly. No one should have to read a sentence twice to understand
it’smeaning, and you should always use the simplest word that means the same thing. If your reader was going to skip your word, sentence, paragraph or quote anyway, omit it from your writing.
- Don’t stagnate your writing. Work on multiple writing projects at the same time, so you can jump from one idea or style of writing to another. It will keep your mind fresh and you will be more efficient.
(photo: Thomas Hawk)