Bloated Legal Writing? Try the Writer’s Diet, But Don’t Stop Exercising

Recently, I recommended how to eliminate nominalizations and buried verbs from your legal writing. A few days later, I got an e-mail from a law-school classmate passing along a post from Draft, a New York Times blog on the art and craft of writing.

In that post, Helen Sword, a professor at the University of Auckland, also called for eliminating nominalizations, which she affectionately labels Zombie Nouns:

At their best, nominalizations help us express complex ideas: perception, intelligence, epistemology. At their worst, they impede clear communication. I have seen academic colleagues become so enchanted by zombie nouns like heteronormativity and interpellation that they forget how ordinary people speak. Their students, in turn, absorb the dangerous message that people who use big words are smarter—or at least appear to be—than those who don’t.  . . . . A paragraph heavily populated by nominalizations will send your readers straight to sleep. Wake them up with vigorous, verb-driven sentences that are concrete, clearly structured and blissfully zombie-free.

Professor Sword also recommended that her readers check out her website—The Writer’s Diet©—which she claims can give nascent writers an “operationalized assessment of [their] . . . propensity for nominalization dependence (translation: to diagnose your own zombie habits).”

Thinking that I had stumbled on a bad-writing-cure-all, I checked out whether Writer’s Diet was worth recommending to readers of Lawyerist.

My conclusion: Check out the site, but exercising your writing skills by reading and imitating good writing is a better way to improve your legal writing than an imprecise mathematical tool.

What’s Writer’s Diet ?

Writer’s Diet claims to “help you energize your writing and strip unnecessary padding from your prose.” The WritersDiet Test lets you to run an algorithmic program that scores writing on the scale of “Heart attack” to “Fit.” Professor Sword notes that the test uses “algorithms based on more than 1,000 writing samples—a process of informed evaluation based on extensive reading, rhetorical analysis, intuition, and, yes, a dollop of subjectivity.”

But Professor Sword acknowledges that the test “is an automated feedback tool, not an assessment tool. . . . It is not designed to judge the overall quality of your writing—or anyone else’s.” And she concedes that the test cannot distinguish between good and bad writing: “fabulous pieces of prose will receive scores of ‘flabby’ or even ‘heart attack’ on the test, because stylish writers have the confidence and skill to play around with language in ways that the WritersDiet Test is not designed to evaluate.”

Writer’s Diet isn’t a cure for flabby legal writing

Some reviewers have found the WritersDiet Test useful, while others have ridiculed it in profanity-laced rants.

So I decided to put the test to a test using excerpts from my eliminating-nominalizations post. Before doing so, though, I unscientifically scrubbed the excerpts of the quotations (mostly quotations from Bryan Garner) and also deleted the specific examples I gave of bad writing.

The WritersDiet Test gave my first writing sample (PDF) a “Fit & trim” score, and it gave my second writing sample (PDF) a “Needs toning” score. Both results, though, were skewed toward the “Flabby” end of the scale because I needed to use the word nominalization multiple times in the samples because of the purpose of the post.

It’s this flaw—not being able to recognize when an author intentionally uses poor or obscure writing—that leads me to conclude that the WritersDiet Test is only minimally useful for most legal writers.

Do Hemingway and Faulkner fail the test?

No matter how sophisticated, computer programs will never be able to consistently identify good or bad writing. That’s because each writer has unique diction, syntax, and style.

Consider Nobel-Prize-winning authors Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner. Although they were contemporaries—and literary rivals—they had markedly different writing styles.

In The Art of Friction: Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, Lorie Watkins Fulton recounts that Hemmingway wrote simply and directly; whereas, Faulkner’s writing was comparatively obscure:

Hemingway’s style is based on the exclusion of extraneous information and words, and as a result his prose is lean, spare, and seemingly straightforward, deriving its power and meaning from what is not explicitly said. Faulkner, on the other hand, writes lush, syntactically difficult prose that challenges its reader with its vocabulary and sheer volume.

Knowing a little about Faulkner’s writing, I surmised that the WritersDiet Test would give him a poor score, so I ran the test on a few passages from As I Lay Dying. As I suspected, the test gave his prose (PDF) a “Flabby” score.

Reading and Imitating Good Legal Writing Will Help More Than Algorithms

If a computer program like the WritersDiet Test can’t distinguish good writing from the bad, what’s an aspiring legal writer to do? It’s simple: To exercise your legal-writing muscles, listen to Stephen King, and read a lot of good writing, and then imitate it.

In The Importance of Attentive Reading (reproduced in Garner on Language and Writing), Bryan Garner says the same thing. He points out that good legal writers are voracious readers, and not just readers of legal writing. As authority, Garner quotes Seventh Circuit Judge Frank Easterbrook’s exhortation to emerging legal writers that they dump the lawbooks and start reading well-written periodicals:

The best way to become a good legal writer is to spend more time reading good prose. And legal prose ain’t that! So read good prose. And then when you come back and start writing legal documents, see if you can write your document like a good article in The Atlantic, addressing a generalist audience. That’s how you do it: get your nose out of the lawbooks and go read some more.

In On Writing Well, William Zinsser echoes the same sentiments about the importance of reading and imitating good writing:

Never hesitate to imitate another writer. Imitation is part of the creative process for anyone learning an art or a craft. Bach and Picasso didn’t spring full-blown as Bach and Picasso; they needed models. This is especially true of writing. Find the best writers in the fields that interest you and read their work aloud. Get their voice and their taste into your ear—their attitude toward language. Don’t worry that by imitating them you’ll lose your own voice and your own identity. Soon enough you will shed those skins and become who you are supposed to become.

The Writer’s Diet, then, is a minimally useful tool to burn the fat from your legal writing. But it’s no substitute for the hard exercise that’s required to become a masterly legal writer. Whether you decide to commit yourself to this difficult training regimen, of course, is up to you.

(photo: A paper prescription form with a doctor’s handwriting that reads – Diet, Exercise, Get Fit from Shutterstock)

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