Read Widely to Improve Your Legal Writing

Many of us lawyers are practitioners in the art of deep reading. Deep reading is getting into the complete line of published and unpublished cases in your niche, footnotes and all. Deep reading is also tackling the treatises and journals on that niche. Make no mistake. Deep reading is necessary for mastery (which also happens to be the name of a book I recommend below), and can help you become a great lawyer.

And deep reading is better than no reading.

To paraphrase bestselling author Stephen King (and any untold number of writers who have anything to say about the subject of writing):

If you don’t read, you don’t write.

At least, you don’t write very well.

Three Benefits of Wide Reading

But deep reading, as I describe it, is the opposite of wide reading. You may have been told to “read widely,” but what does that do for you, exactly? How does that help you improve your legal writing? How might it help you become a great lawyer?

Here are the three benefits of wide reading:

  1. Every piece of writing instructs. This applies to the good, the bad, and the overtly commercial, like how-to writing. Take so-called craft books, for example. Craft books attempt to teach the “writer’s craft.” There are many craft books on the market, promising to help you write your bestselling novel in 90 days, stoke your latent creative genius, and help you punch through stubborn writer’s block. I’ve read plenty of them. Craft books sell because they make implicit promises to the reader: You, too, can become a published author or a better writer or both. Many craft books hoodwink the reader into thinking it’s really possible to write a novel in a week, a month, whatever—they don’t tell you that you’ll probably not write a good novel. But there are some craft books that are worth the read. Read William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, which taught me to redefine “literature” as more than the writing produced by 19th century novelists. Zinsser argues that good literature is nothing more than a compelling story, well told.
  2. Yes, your legal writing can be interesting to read. Lewis Thomas was a physician who also happened to write very well. His subject was science and medicine. His essays weren’t drab little pieces of technical writing, filled with needless complexity and overwrought jargon. His writing easily could have been, but, then again, I wouldn’t be writing about him now. His The Lives of a Cell demonstrates how science writing can be done. Atul Gawande’s Complications is another example. Take your lessons from writers like Thomas and Gawande—despite the fact that they’re doctors, not lawyers—and try to do the same thing with your legal writing.
  3. Reading is the ultimate in self-help. If you’re not committed to wide reading, you will shortchange your development in legal writing. Unfortunately, many of us place reading pretty low on our list of priorities. Often it’s because we’re simply too busy to read anything that isn’t sent to us on law office letterhead, or we’re doing the deep reading thing with the cases and statutes. If you’re serious about improving your legal writing, and you also want to try wide reading, you might do well to read George Leonard’s Mastery. This is a quick read, but there’s incalculable value here if you follow his advice. He describes the three personality types of those who aren’t on the path of mastery—the Hacker, the Dabbler, and the Obsessive—and then describes an alternative path, the path of mastery, which is the long-haul path. Ultimately, the path of mastery is the only way to get better at legal writing.

(photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/betsystreeter/2730195680/)

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  • Michael Spalding

    I couldn’t agree more with the importance of reading widely, but for the busy law student, non-required reading is frequently dropped from the list of things to do. Unfortunately, it sounds like this habit carries over into law practice. I think Bryan Garner’s recommendation to read The Green Bag is a good compromise; the student or busy lawyer can read high-quality, law-related material on a variety of topics. However, the law is ultimately a literary profession, and serious lawyers should delve into the best literature the canon has to offer.