Garner’s business writing basics

Bryan Garner just shared this video of five writing tips. It’s a great start to writing better in your job, whatever it is. I, for one, will try to use weouryou, and your more.

As Garner states, good business writing “is a skill you must cultivate to succeed.” William Zinsser made much the same point in On Writing Well:

Managers at every level are prisoners of the notion that a simple style reflects a simple mind. Actually a simple style is the result of hard work and hard thinking; a muddled style reflects a muddled thinker or a person too arrogant, too dumb, or too lazy to organize his thoughts. Remember that what you write is often the only chance you’ll get to present yourself to someone whose business or money or good will you need. If what you write is ornate, or pompous, or fuzzy, that’s how you’ll be perceived. The reader has no other choice.

Most lawyer-writing is muddled. Not just in court, but in emails, letters, and legal documents. This is a big part of the legal profession’s negative image; our clients can’t understand us. Is it any wonder they think we’re arrogant and pompous?

For example, wills and trusts (the documents I work with) are chock-full of jargon and vagueries. This should not be. We should all have wills we can read and understand without a $200/hour interpreter. If estate planning documents were drafted in plain language, fewer people would need to hire a lawyer for probate or trust administration when it comes time to actually use those documents. That might be bad for repeat business, but it’s good for clients.

I want to be a lawyer who always writes and speaks in a way my clients can understand. As Zinsser pointed out, that takes hard work and hard thinking. (It will probably be a while before I can muster the time and energy to edit multiple 30-page trusts.)

Thankfully, that’s just the kind of work and thinking I enjoy most.

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.