I just finished reading a really inspiring article about a HUGE writing crisis in this country—a crisis that chips away a bit at my soul each and every day like a faucet dripping on old porcelain. The article is inspiring because it focuses on some people who have not only identified a real problem but also come up with a template for fixing it. My favorite quote from this article comes from David Coleman, designer of a set of new high school writing standards that promote “lucid communication” over self-expression: “As you grow up in this world, you realize that people really don’t give a shit about what you feel or what you think.”
Perhaps it seems ironic that I—a blogger continually mouthing off about how I feel about this, that, and the other—should seize upon this statement to applaud. My approval stems from the fact that, as the context of the utterance makes clear, Coleman’s observation arises from an awareness of how people learn to write well—or, really, how people fail to learn to write well when the pedagogical emphasis is on self-expression. Self-expression is a laudable goal; but it is not the ideal focal point. This is because most people write to be understood by others, not just to vent. And being understood requires focusing on your readers’ needs, not just on capturing what is rattling around in your head.
Here’s the article: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/10/the-writing-revolution/309090/.
And here are some things the article teaches that can be readily applied to legal writing:
· Good writing has to transcend the idea of self-expression. In fact, a person does not effectively express anything about him- or herself without thinking somewhat mechanically about bridging the gulf between one’s interior life and the outside world.
· Writing well indicates you can do other things well because writing well reflects precision. (And precision is important when it comes to, like, law, and other technical stuff.)
· Moreover, writing reinforces reading comprehension, speaking ability, and listening skills.
· Writing helps you comprehend a subject in a way that simply reading about that subject cannot do.
· Good writing requires expressly linking related ideas—which means being mindful of conjunctions (and, or, but, yet) and the words used to introduce dependent clauses (although, despite, however).
· You can’t deviate from the rules effectively until you understand what they are.
· After announcing a conclusion or introducing a topic, you have to provide the reader with specific, concrete examples that substantiate the generalization. These examples should be introduced by words that inform the reader of the relationship between the specifics and what came before (e.g., specifically, for example, for instance).
· Writers benefit from a structural formula they can follow to ensure that their exposition does not go astray.
And here is why I think Will Shakespeare, a notably good writer, would agree:
· Even his most blatantly personal writing, the sonnets, adheres to a strict form that forced him to take his feelings and forge them meticulously into something worth sharing.
· His writing reflects some of the most sophisticated thinking about all manner of things—mortality, human hypocrisy, romantic and filial love, deception, jealousy, class warfare, ambition—you name it.
· His writing reflects: tremendous literacy, an amazing ear for speech as a reflection of character, and an understanding that words can and should be exploited to make music as an additional means to convey information.
· All of his plays adhere to a five-act structure, are made of lines that fit a precise pattern, and employ plots already proven to resonate with audiences.
In sum: superb creative writing is not just a matter of self-expression; so why would we ever think that the best way to prepare people to write something far more prosaic involves placing a premium on self-expression? Learning to write like a lawyer wouldn’t be so painful, perhaps, if people were taught to embrace a formulaic, rule-based approach to writing earlier in life. Certainly, reading the writing produced by those who would be lawyers would be less painful if those writers saw certain formulas as liberating, not stifling.