As lawyers, we can sometimes get a bit insular with our feedback loops, especially regarding writing. (Looking at you, Bryan Garner cultists). I think it is always worthwhile to step outside of our legal comfort zone every so often and figure out how good writing – in whatever form – can make our writing better.
Every year, I have my writing students do an exercise that they always view with great suspicion. First, I make them read Frank Deford’s gorgeously sad article, ‘The Rise and Fall of Kirby Puckett.” (Apologies in advance, longtime Minnesota Twins fans). As a sportswriter, I don’t think that Deford has ever written a word that was deliberately, unnecessarily cynical. His story about Puckett – baseball’s good guy that turned out to have feet of clay – is a story of deep sadness, of wishing for what might have been, of trying so hard to crawl inside the head of someone else to figure out where it all went wrong. Isn’t the last what we lawyers often have to do?
One of the reasons I use the Deford piece is that I know nothing about baseball nor sportsball of any particular variety really. Were I – the unconnected, the not-caring – to write this piece, it would be nothing but a takedown, a Kirby Puckett hit piece. From Deford, though, it is an elegy for Puckett, the boy who loved baseball but got lost on the way somehow. I use this piece to get at the Aristotelian concepts of persuasion – ethos, logos, pathos – and how Deford could bring ethos and pathos to a piece like this and I could not. He speaks with an authority I do not possess, as I don’t have any particular background or understanding of baseball or Puckett. More importantly, though, he speaks with an appeal to emotion that I could never possess, as I did not love the sport, I did not once love and admire Puckett. I might have been able to make a logical appeal, but that would be so…cold, so distant, so non-resonant with my potential audience. I often thing as lawyers we get awfully caught up in the logos, perhaps at the expense of the other two pieces of the rhetorical triangle.
After the Deford article, I have each student tell me (they know ahead of time they will do this – it’s not a surprise) who one of their favorite authors are and why that author is persuasive, keeping in mind those Aristotelian concepts. I warn them that I do not believe that their favorite author is a Supreme Court justice or that they read cases in their spare time. I’m (obviously) trying to draw out some reading they’re passionate about and how that can influence their legal writing.
Every year I get a wide variety of authors – some I’ve heard of, some I haven’t. Sometimes people are sheepish or suspicious because they want their author to live up to some imaginary standard of intellectual worthiness. The point of the exercise, however, is that we can draw value – meaningful value that can help us be better writers – from reading things we love. My first year doing this, a student said Matt Taibbi was his favorite, and explained his Hunter S. Thompson-esque appeal. I raced out and bought The Great Derangement and have read everything Taibbi has written since. He’s a positively pugilistic writer, but he backs up his hostility with a complete overload of research. While I am not planning on developing an inherently combative writing stance, reading him teaches me that the more I want to lead with my chin when writing an argument, the more I should pile on the facts when I do so.
Last year for the first time, a student picked a blogger rather than a traditional author, and the blogger he picked was a fairly prominent men’s fashion blogger. He talked about how the writing helped shape his opinion of fashion and helped shift his thinking on various fashion choices. He also explained that reading the blog routinely introduced him to new designers and concepts. What could be better than that, persuasion-wise? It introduced him to new ideas and changed his mind about existing ideas.
Thinking about authors in this way can help us get out of our technical writing fixations. That’s not to say that the technical things don’t matter, or that your next brief should read like a John Grisham novel. However, thinking about the writing you love and why you love it can help you bring your own persuasive skills, your own pathos and ethos, to your work, rather than your work being an attempt at pure logic. Your audience – be that the court or a client or a CLE audience or anything else you can think of – should look to you as someone they can relate to, as someone they trust. Moreover, reading things we love reminds us of the power of words, of the joy at finding the right way to express ourselves, and we need that in our writing – even in legal writing.
In case you’re wondering – I tell my students about one of my favorite books, Nabokov’s Pale Fire. Nabokov’s writing shows a man wildly in love with the English language, and this book creates a literary world so elaborate that it holds up even after you’re in on the conceit that powers the whole book. Reading it always reminds me that finding the right word, the right way to express myself, can be a labor of love and not just a tortured technical exercise. I’d like to say it makes me a better writer, but that’s probably not for me to judge.