Legal Writing to Win a Pulitzer

Do you want to improve your writing? I mean, really improve (and clarify) your writing? If so, the first thing to do is read good stuff. And by “good stuff,” I mean the work of short fiction masters like Edward P. Jones and Raymond Carver.

The second thing to do is actually write.

So, to keep things really simple, here are three easy steps you can take to dramatically improve your writing:

  1. Read
  2. Write
  3. Read

If you’re ready to follow the steps, read on:

Read

My advice? Don’t read anything “legal.” Borders Books might be bankrupt but you can still get your hands on paperback books. Go to the library or the bookstore or pull out your Kindle and download a copy of Lost  in the City by Edward P. Jones, or Cathedral by Raymond Carver. These authors are masters of the short story. You can learn a tremendous amount about writing just by reading a few of Carver’s minimalist short stories.

Write

If you followed Step 1, you finished a story or two in the hour before you went to bed last night. Good. Now sit down at your desk, take a pen and paper, and copy down long-hand the entire opening paragraph of one of the stories you read. Do it word for word. Then read it over. What do you notice about the first sentence? How does it pull you in? How does the opening paragraph work as a whole to get you engaged? One thing a short story writer does is get the hook in. And remember: It doesn’t have to be a big hook.

This exercise will help you get inside the mind of a master writer, if only for a brief moment.

Read

Now that you’ve had a chance to read and write and absorb, pick up the work of Jones or Carver again and get lost in the fictional world they’ve created for you. Finish another story or two, and give yourself some time off.

Start Again

When you’re ready, return to Step 1, and read those same stories again, except this time try to notice what the writer does with his or her opening sentences and paragraphs, as well as the words—simple, clear, direct words—that the writer uses. Then pick up your pen or get behind your computer and write your brief.

See a pattern?

Read, write and read. And it doesn’t have to take a lot of time. The benefit of short stories is that they’re short. Follow these three simple steps and your writing should improve. You might not win a Pulitzer, but at least you’re learning how to write—I mean really write—by reading the work of those who have.

(photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/vasta/21490484/)

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  • http://lawyerist.com/author/andymergendahl/ Andy Mergendahl

    Great advice, Chris. While reading Carver (or Hemingway, I think) should help any writer gravitate toward brevity, Carver’s “minimalist” short strories were in fact not so minimal until his editor, Gordon Lish, got ahold of them. Sadly, many lawyers must be their own editors.
    http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2007/12/24/071224fa_fact

    • Chris Bradley

      Fantastic New Yorker article. Thanks for the link to it. I love reading about writers. It’s something fun to do when you feel like procrastinating…

  • Leslie MacKenzie

    Absolutely! Although I don’t think you have to stick to minimalist writers though, any good writer will do. I used to work for an award-winning journalist and sometimes edited his work. One day he brought me something I’d written and said “Where did you learn to do this. It’s exactly right and lots of people get this wrong.” I said, “I read great writers. Tolstoy is my favorite.” I think grammar is best learned through osmosis.

    • Chris Bradley

      I totally agree with you. Rarely do I need to pick up a book on grammar (not that I don’t make mistakes). It’s just something I’ve absorbed through reading.

  • http://blog.mckeeoffice.com/ Sharmil McKee

    I love the New Yorker article. It shows how hard it is to part with our written work. This explains why our briefs aren’t brief. Sometimes we are emotionally tied to our writing and can’t delete the unnecessary words.