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Getting seriously good—in public


For years I’ve encouraged lawyers to write for publication. I suggest starting with a local bar’s newsletter. Write about the useful know-how you’ve picked up in practice. The same goes for interns, externs, and law clerks. If nothing else, you’ll learn a great deal in preparing nuts-and-bolts pieces; whether you’re addressing the intricacies of removing a case from state to federal court, representing banks in garnishment actions, or protecting a client’s interests in the assignment of patents. After handling countless practical problems for their clients, lawyers and aspiring lawyers can increase their skills by writing about what they know.

Now that I’m looking at a local bar’s newsletter, though, I think perhaps I’ve failed to underscore the need for serious revision—which begins with this goal: Become mortified by the idea of publishing an inept article. Absolutely mortified.

Understand that professionals typically pass through many revisions. I, for example, would never dream of publishing a piece that hasn’t gone through 15 or so revisions before being reviewed by five or six professional editors. There’s simply too much on the line, and my writing is too apt to be dry, obvious, awkward, boring, or flat wrong if it hasn’t been subjected to comments from several critical and knowledgeable intellects.

So let me tell you what’s wrong with the newsletter articles I’ve mentioned. It strikes me that anyone who takes the time to read the articles closely will be less—not more—likely to hire the lawyers who wrote them. “Getting your name out there” means little if what you’re doing is parading your bad habits.

The first article, which contains some interesting insights into why so many older people divorce, begins this way: “A megatrend in the 21st century is the growing number of seniors who procure marital dissolution.” First, a megatrend? What is that? It sounds like business jargon—as indeed it is. Second, the word is almost certainly hyperbole—is this really an epidemic? Third, here we are in 2011, and we’re being reminded what century we’re in: A megatrend in the 21st century is . . . This is pure cliché. It might be better to begin with a straightforward statement: “More seniors than ever before are getting divorced these days.” Getting divorced? Yes. It’s better than “procuring marital dissolution.”

The next sentence states: “The divorce rate for the ‘50 plus’ demographic is estimated to have doubled in the past decade.” First, let’s question this use of statistics. Is the writer really comparing percentages of the relevant population, or the total number of divorces in this age group? If the latter, how much has that age group increased in the last decade? But leaving that aside: the “50 plus” demographic? That’s a variation on seniors in the first sentence. But again, it’s jargon. How strange to refer to flesh-and-blood people as “a demographic.” Demography (the study of populations) is a noun, and demographic the corresponding adjective. Only in the late 20th century did some people—I emphasize some people—begin referring to this demographic or that demographic. This usage is hardly a trend among good writers (and certainly not a megatrend).

The first two sentences could be advantageously combined: “More seniors than ever before are getting divorced—in fact, double the percentage from a decade ago.”

But we’re just getting started on this paragraph. It continues: “National attention was riveted to the news that Al and Tipper Gore announced their separation by e-mail in June of 2010 after 40 years of marriage.” The cadence and flow of this sentence make it hard to know what we’re supposed to focus on. Read it aloud: The climax comes with e-mail. They announced it by e-mail? How ghastly. Or wait a second: Did they separate by e-mail? Everyone under a certain age—let’s say, in the 20 to 30 “demographic”—knows that it’s bad form to break up by e-mail. Al and Tipper separated by e-mail? No: They announced it (I think) by e-mail. Look at the sentence again. As you start wondering whether the writer is having some fun with the canard that Gore claimed to have invented the Internet—by which medium he has now announced to the world his separation (how many e-mails did the couple send?), you realize that all this speculation is irrelevant to the writer’s point. Oh, this is just an example of a post-50 divorcing couple. While reading that sentence, you riveted your attention on the wrong thing—though it’s hardly your fault.

The next sentence—it’s tough moving through this paragraph—says: “Less surprising was Larry King’s press release the following month that he was seeking divorce . . . ” Ah, you say, the form of the announcement is the thing, after all. A press release is more to be expected (less surprising) from a celebrity couple than an e-mail, which tends to rivet national attention. But why, you ask? I’m not sure: Personally I’ve never read such a press release. I don’t get it. But then the sentence ends: “. . . for the eighth time.” What? This isn’t about e-mails vs. press releases at all: It’s about numbers. Divorce is so common today that it’s “less surprising” that a celebrity has divorced only once than it is that he has divorced eight times. Now that’s a megatrend, all right.

Call me callow, but I’m surprised by anyone who’s gotten divorced eight times. Eight! Maybe the point is that once you’ve been married seven times, your eighth excursion into holy matrimony may well end in wrack and ruin. By then, it becomes predictable. But it’s still surprising that the writer would call eight divorces unsurprising.

Our writer is now closing in on the thesis sentence, with which he ends his opening paragraph: “What are the reasons for the trend of seniors untying the knot?” But this question doesn’t really tell us what the article is about. Only the next paragraph discusses these reasons. The rest of the article—the whole point of it—is what lawyers must know in handling such cases. So the thesis sentence is misleading, as well as wordy. It could have read: “Why do seniors divorce?” Or: “Why do seniors divorce, and what do lawyers need to know to handle these cases effectively?”

Editorial experience has taught me that just a few readers—secretarial readers, junior-colleague readers, a spouse reader (assuming that the lawyer who wrote this piece is still married), friend readers—would have, through successive edits, corrected every flaw I’ve mentioned. Then
we’d end up with something decently publishable:

A megatrend in the 21st century is the growing number of seniors procuring marital dissolutions. The divorce rate for the “50 plus” demographic is estimated to have doubled in the past decade. National attention was riveted to the news that Al and Tipper Gore announced their separation by e-mail in June of 2010 after 40 years of marriage. Less surprising was Larry King’s press release the following month that he was seeking divorce for the eighth time. What are the reasons for the trend of seniors untying the knot?

It’s all over the news: Al and Tipper split after 40 years. Larry King, at 80, divorces for the eighth time. More seniors than ever before are getting divorced—in fact, double the percentage from a decade ago. Why is this happening, and what must lawyers know to handle these cases effectively?

That’s a start. Now let’s go to the second paragraph.

Oh dear. The writer has just stormed out of the room, shouting “Forget it!” He tells me that if this is what it’s all about, he’s had it. He doesn’t want to subject every darned paragraph to this kind of scrutiny. He has neither the time nor the patience. Writing isn’t his strong suit, and he was doing this only as a favor to the editor. (Actually, he said “only doing this as a favor”—and I’ve just corrected the misplacement of only.)

Okay. That didn’t happen. But it could have. I’ve seen it happen before—from lawyers and law students who have neither the drive nor the mental toughness needed to excel at writing.

But I’ve also seen the opposite: The writer who would sit in admiring wonderment with an experienced editor making those types of edits. They’d say they want to learn how to edit like this. How long will it take? (A few years.) Can they learn? (If they really care to, yes.) Will it ever get easier? (Not much: A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.) Is it worth it? (You tell me.)

Vol. 40 No. 3

Bryan Garner BRYAN A. GARNER is distinguished research professor of law at Southern Methodist University and lecturer in law at the University of Texas School of Law. He is editor in chief of Black’s Law Dictionary and the author of many books, including Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts (2012) and Making Your Case: The Art of Persuading Judges (2008), both cowritten with Justice Antonin Scalia.

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