How to make legal writing better, faster, and more fun

Writing is not an easy task. Even though all lawyers write a fair amount (and some do a lot of it), many avoid writing and dislike sitting down to the task. This is, perhaps, why so many briefs are written last-minute, or why motions eek in on the deadline. When I worked as an attorney-editor, our most persistent issue was just getting our attorney-authors to do their writing by the deadline.

How can we make the task of writing easier, faster, and more fun? We must start with seeing that to write is not a single task, though we usually think of it that way. Even a short article or blog post takes first an idea, then exploring that idea, then deciding how to present that idea in a logical structure, then writing the sentences and paragraphs, and finally revising it all into a polished whole.

The Flowers Paradigm is a process for writing.

What we need is a systematic approach to each writing project. Thankfully, we have it: the Flowers Paradigm. Devised by Dr. Betty S. Flowers (and promoted heavily by Bryan Garner himself), the Flowers Paradigm is a simple way to remember that every writing project benefits from engaging your brain in four very different ways:

  1. The Madman
  2. The Architect
  3. The Carpenter
  4. The Judge

The Madman furiously generates ideas.

At the beginning of a writing project, putting on the persona of the Madman is about brainstorming and generating as many ideas as possible. This is not the time for critical thinking, but creativity.

Don’t start writing sentences yet! Use pen and paper; draw a picture; connect single words or phrases with lines and arrows and circles and diagrams.

The Architect connects the ideas and forms a structure.

Once your inner Madman has generated the raw material for you to work with—both the gold and the dross—it’s time to put on your Architect hat. Most of us would call this stage “outlining,” but a list of roman numerals and headings may not be the best approach. The goal is to give your ideas a logical structure. Create a skeleton for your writing, whatever it is, to get your reader logically to your conclusion.

The Carpenter writes sentences to fill in the blanks.

Don’t start typing until your head is clear about what you want to say and how you’re going to say it. It doesn’t have to be perfect—you will make changes later—but you need to have some clarity, or you’ll produce a mishmash.

Once you have that clarity, writing the sentences and paragraphs becomes much easier and more pleasant. You just have to follow the guides. As Bryan Garner puts it, the Carpenter stage should feel like filling in the blanks.

The Judge critiques, edits, and refines.

Finally, after you have a completed draft, you can let your inner critic loose. The hardest part is making your Judge wait until this point. He must not interfere with the creative earlier stages.

Now you can review, proofread, edit, and refine. You’ll cringe a bit as you look at your raw work, but now you can toss the dross and keep that gold.

Conclusion

If you take away one idea from this post, it should be that “writing” is not a single thing—it’s a process. Recognize that good and efficient writing requires a sequence of very different tasks. When you have a process to follow, your writing will get better and take you less time. If you’re familiar with Getting Things Done, you’ll know this concept: 5 minutes spent planning a project will save 20 minutes of working on it.

The next time you have to write something—anything—consciously engage each step of the Flowers Paradigm. Even if it’s only for a few minutes each.

In my next post, I’ll talk about some particular problems lawyers face with writing that the Flowers Paradigm solves, and some of my own strategies to employ at each step.

How to make your documents look professional

If you’re at all like me, you spent your entire college and law school career writing papers with required formatting: double-spaced, Times New Roman, and one-inch margins. You put two spaces after each sentence because that’s how you were taught to type. You hit the tab key at the start of each paragraph because how else do you get that nice big indent?

Many of us carried this formatting into the professional world. The problem is that it produces memos, emails, and reports that look like homework, not professional analysis.

The look of your documents matters for the same reason wearing a suit to court matters.

Wearing a suit to court is a matter of decorum, professionalism, reputation, and respect. It means you take the matter seriously. It won’t win you the case, but the judge isn’t going to berate you because you’re wearing sweatpants, either.

Legal documents need to appear in formal attire, too. With only a few changes, you can dress up your writing and make it that much easier for your reader to hear you.

Here’s how to start.

1. Use only one space after each sentence.

Like many, I was taught to hit the spacebar twice after each sentence in my middle school typing class. This is a holdover from the days of typewriters. In today’s world, it is objectively worse than using only one space.

Matthew Butterick—your friendly neighborhood typographer-lawyer—lays down the law:

Always put exactly one space between sen­tences.

Or more gen­er­ally: put exactly one space after any punc­tu­a­tion.

… [O]ne space is the well-set­tled cus­tom of pro­fes­sional typog­ra­phers. You don’t need to like it. You only need to accept it.

I have no idea why so many writ­ers resist the one-space rule. If you’re skep­ti­cal, pick up any book, news­pa­per, or mag­a­zine and tell me how many spaces there are between sen­tences.

Cor­rect—one.

That last bit is, humorously, exactly what converted Bryan Garner himself. He tells the story as a vignette for the ABA. His first secretary at LawProse told him that he had to stop putting two spaces after each sentence, or “[o]ur coursebooks are going to look amateurish.” As proof, she told him to look at his two books that Oxford University Press had published. Garner: “I went through an extensive reference library to prove Ruth and Oxford wrong. But every reputable source I could find, including The Chicago Manual of Style, supported them—not me.”

2. Start your paragraphs with either a first-line indent or a space after the previous paragraph.

From Butterick:

First-line indents and space between para­graphs have the same rela­tion­ship as belts and sus­penders. You only need one to get the job done. Using both is a mis­take. If you use a first-line indent on a para­graph, don’t use space between. And vice versa.

He also admonishes not to approximate a first-line indent with the tab key. In Word, set it as a paragraph property. Why? Because paragraphs with tabs are hard to keep consistent or reformat. In other words, it will allow you to use Word’s styles properly.

3. If you justify your text, turn on hyphenation. Otherwise, left-align.

Much of the legal and professional world seems to like justified text. It has that bookish, formal look—until gigantic spaces appear between words. That’s why hyphenation exists, and you should turn it on. It’s under the “Layout” tab in Word. For a nice side-by-side illustration of the effect, see Butterick.

If that’s too much of a bother, left-aligning the text is fine, too. Many people find it easier to read. It’s especially appropriate for webpages, where the width of the text will vary with the reader’s device.

4. Use appropriate line spacing.

Double-spacing is for drafts; it isn’t meant for reading. You’ll never see a book, newspaper, or magazine double-spaced. Single-spaced text is hard to read, too. It takes a bit of work, but setting the line spacing between 120% and 145% of the point size of the text is best.

5. Consider a different font, if you can.

Times New Roman is the king of default fonts. It’s okay (Butterick thinks it connotes apathy), though not ideal for readability. Using it won’t hurt your credibility or distract the reader (unless your reader is a font snob). So using a different font is something of a judgment call.

If you can make that call, though, you have the chance to present something fresh and interesting to the reader. Rather like choosing a tie, you can show something of your personality in your choice of font. Butterick’s list of acceptable system fonts is a good place to start. One of my favorites is Charter, which is even available for free (Medium notably chose it as their text font).

6. Increase your side margins to 1.5 inches—or 2 inches if you dare.

This produces one of the most immediate and dramatic improvements to the look of any Word document. It takes some courage, because people are so used to 1-inch margins that they’ll notice it immediately. But once they’re done noticing it, they’ll realize it’s better.

Increasing the margins increases whitespace, another characteristic of professional publishing. It’s all about line length. The longer a line of text is, the harder it is to follow and read from line to line.

How to search Wis. Stats. from your Chrome address bar

One of the things we can be proud of as Wisconsin attorneys is our legislature’s website. The statutes and administrative code are easy to access and free. People in other states aren’t always so lucky.

If you’re like me, you probably only go to the state legislature website to search for a statute or regulation. You probably have the site bookmarked, and every time you click that bookmark you immediately put a search in the box at the top of the site. Wouldn’t it be nice if, instead, you could put your search right in your browser’s address bar—without navigating to the legislature website first?

Of course, you can. Here’s how to do it in Chrome.

1. On your computer, open Chrome.

2. At the top right, click the three-dot menu button; select “Settings”.

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3. In the “Search” section, click “Manage search engines”.

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4. Under “Other search engines”:

Look at the bottom for an entry called “WisLeg.” This should appear if you’ve ever used the search on the legislature’s website while using Chrome. If it’s not there, try going to the legislature’s website and entering a search, then check again. You can also copy and paste this url into the third box on the “Add a new search engine” line: http://docs.legis.wisconsin.gov/search/results?q=%s&start={startIndex?}&rows={count?}

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Click on the middle column for the “WisLeg” entry. This is the keyword you’ll use to perform a search from Chrome’s address bar. Right now it should be “legis.wisconsin.gov”; if you typed that into the address bar and then pressed tab, you would search the legislature’s website. But that’s a bit long, so rename it to something you’ll remember and can type quickly, like “legis” or “stats”.

If you want, you can also rename the search engine from “WisLeg” to something else—but this won’t affect the search.

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5. That’s it!

Try opening a new tab and typing the keyword you chose into the address bar. You should see a message on the right end of the bar telling you that if you press tab, you’ll search the legislature’s website. Go ahead and press tab, then enter a search and press enter. You’ll be taken directly to the legislature website’s search results page.

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Now that you’ve set up this nice shortcut for searching the legislature’s website, you can do the same thing for almost any website that has search.