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The Friday Five

Getting Your Words In Order

By The Editors

Breathes there the lawyer with soul so dead who never to himself hath said, “Wow, I really write great!” (Apologies to Sir Walter Scott)

It’s true, writing is a lawyer’s primary tool and a great source of pride and identity. But isn’t it also true that once in a while a teensy-weensy wisp of doubt creeps in? In the grip of writer’s block, you fixate on memories of those redpenciled obscenities in the margin of your first freshman writing assignment. Someone questions your use of a semicolon, say, and you feel suddenly unmoored. Or the question of one space or two after a period is raised over cocktails and your usual patina of expertise begins to crumble: “It’s two, damn it! Right … ?” This week’s five is for the writer inside us all—the brief jockey, the aspiring novelist, the blogger, the 140-character Tweetster, and especially those of us too stubborn to put the pen down—with a few of our favorite sources of information, inspiration and amusement.

  1. Legal writing blogs (delicious!). Perhaps (like us) you just plain love words and writing. If so, you’ll find reading the latest post by Raymond P. Ward on his blog the (new) legal writer a delicious way to start your day. Ward is an appellate lawyer in “New Orleans, Louisiana, Earth,” and nothing if not obsessed by clear writing. If you had been reading his posts for the last few weeks you might have learned about grammar superstition, misguided pedantry, bottoms-up email writing and whether or not you can put pictures in briefs. Who wouldn’t want to start their day that way? We also like Disputed Issues by Stephen R. Diamond, who cites his occupation as “supplier of legal theories.” Diamond, who says he “spurn(s) the unreadable verbosity and stupefying impertinence of ordinary briefs,” writes on such topics as “Dash or Colon: Does the Tail Wag the Dog?” and “Can Bad Writers Be Good Thinkers?”
  2. Grammar guidance. There are so many great grammar resources, you’d think it was actually fun stuff! Apparently some people think it is. Take a look at Grammar Girl on the Quick and Dirty Tips site. She makes grammar interesting, clear and even a little “gee whiz!” You can take lessons in quick audio form if you prefer. The blog Throw Grammar from the Train is completely different. It is written by Jan Freeman, the retired The Word columnist from the Boston Globe. Anyone who can write about Ambrose Bierce’s language peeves—as she did in her book Write It Right—has some interesting things to say.
  3. What’s your type? Most lawyers have strong feelings about fonts and typefaces. While they tend to lean in the direction of traditional serif fonts, there’s always one in the crowd who thinks Comic Sans is the best. Simon Garfield’s new book, Just My Type, will help you articulate what it is you like and don’t like, all while teaching you about the history of typography and all that it entails. It’s an entertaining read that uses recent public typography controversy to “explain the emotional implications of type.” (Watch the fun video, too.) And, of course, there is Matthew Butterick’s Typography for Lawyers, a book written by a lawyer-typographer.
  4. Appealing to editors. If you’re one of those lawyers who secretly emulates John Grisham, thinks you are a better writer than Scott Turow, and has at least one unpublished but brilliant manuscript in your desk drawer, you’ll no doubt enjoy learning more about what editors want. Watch the three-minute video created by the Just My Type folks, which features publishing professionals sharing their typography preferences. (Who knows, maybe switching your manuscript from Futura to Caslon would help?) An even more complete peek into the mind of an editor is The Subversive Copyeditor, a book and blog of advice and humor written by Carol Saller, senior manuscript editor at the University of Chicago Press and editor of the Chicago Manual of Style Online’s Q&A.
  5. Portable Document Format 411. If you are planning to submit an article or manuscript for editorial consideration—never mind those pesky client documents—you better know what you’re doing with PDF files! Ernest Svenson (aka Ernie the Attorney), who practices law in New Orleans and teaches at Loyola Law School, writes the blog PDF for Lawyers, which is full of “smart tips for busy lawyers and legal professionals.” Software, scanners, downloads—you name it, Ernie’s got it.
Categories: Communications Skills, Daily Dispatch, Friday Five, Lawyer Skills, Passions
Originally published September 23, 2011
Last updated May 12, 2020
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