Mark Herrmann, a columnist on in-house issues at Above the Law, had a nice post this week. In it, he promised to deliver “the key to good writing.” That’s a pretty big promise, but I think Herrmann is onto something here.
The key to good writing, he said, is this: “Don’t think about what you want to say. Think about what the other guy needs to hear.”
That is terrifically good advice. In his post, Herrmann gives several examples in which he applies his advice to the “macro” decision of selecting a topic for a given piece of writing. Take the example of choosing topics for blog posts:
Don’t think about what you want to say. Think about what the other guy needs to hear.
“What should today’s blog post (or the new issue of the firm newsletter) say?
- Option one (seemingly used by most lawyers): ‘Truk acident (sic) on I-95! Hire me!’
- Option two (seemingly used by most lawyers at elite firms): ‘Last month, our state’s Supreme Court handed down a new opinion. In this article, we describe the facts of the case in painful detail, regurgitate the court’s reasoning, and conclude that the Supreme Court recently decided a case.’
- Option three: ‘Yesterday, our state’s Supreme Court handed down an opinion that gives employers a new defense against wage-and-hour class actions. Employers should immediately take three steps to make maximum use of this new change in the law…'”
Option three is obviously the best. (It’s also the hardest, as Herrmann admits—but good writing is not easy writing, and option three delivers the most value to readers.)
Herrmann has indeed put his finger on something. But I would like to take it a step further.
Herrmann’s call to “think about what the other guy needs to hear” works not only at the “macro” level of topic selection, but on the “micro” level of choosing words, constructing sentences, and linking paragraphs. It takes considerable effort to do that, and many writers, mentally drained from the process, are content to simply get something on the page and move on. Excellent writers separate themselves by taking the extra step to consider what they’ve written, and then make it easy to read. They think, in Herrmann’s words, about what the other guy needs to hear.
Often, this results in shorter sentences, plainer language, and better clarity of thought. This lovely scene from A River Runs Through It says it all:
Thinking about “what the other guy needs to hear” when putting words to paper isn’t just good advice for schoolboys. It’s advice that lawyers, in particular, need to consider, given their professional bias for opaque prose. When someone says that you “sound like a lawyer,” they usually mean that you just tried to sound smart by using inflated language, but didn’t make any sense. Unfortunately, that is how lawyers sometimes write.
A truly gifted writer, the late David Foster Wallace (whose final book dealt with the IRS), explained in an interview why this is so (emphasis added):
“…in many tight, insular communities—where membership is partly based on intelligence, proficiency and being able to speak the language of the discipline—pieces of writing become as much or more about presenting one’s own qualifications for inclusion in the group than transmission of meaning. And that’s how in disciplines like academia—or, I’ve read some really good legal prose, but when it’s really, really horrible (IRS Code stuff)—I think that very often it stems from insecurity and that people feel that unless they can mimic the particular jargon and style of their peers, they won’t be taken seriously and their ideas won’t be taken seriously.”
Many lawyers, myself included, will recognize the truth of this statement. But the key to writing a good blog post, or a good article, or a good speech, is not “sounding like a lawyer.” The key is making that blog post, article, or speech easy for the audience to digest.
Lawyers who accomplish that feat will be very well respected indeed. And they won’t ever need another writing tip again.