Adopt a growth mentality

Even strong writers have room to improve.

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Ego is an enemy of growth. Many lawyers and law students are (or think they are) already strong writers, so they develop resistance to critical feedback and miss out on opportunities to learn.

But the concept of a “strong writer” is problematic. Writing is a set of skills that can be learned and improved. At any point, a person can decide to strive for improvement as a writer by becoming more conscious of his or use of language, seeking feedback, and engaging in deliberate practice. Your first step toward becoming a better writer should be to recognize that you can improve, however good you may already be.

Forget about static concepts such as “talent”; recognize and overcome lazy beliefs such as the idea that you are already “good enough,” that you have already reached your potential, or that you learned enough about legal writing in law school. Writing is the lawyer’s primary tool, and learning to write well is a lifelong process. Your goal should be to get a little bit better at it every week.

The three key ingredients to improvement as a writer are reading, practice, and feedback.

Reading

Read widely and attentively as much as possible to expand your mental map and tune your ear for language. Don’t restrict yourself to legal materials; make time for literature and general nonfiction, too. Consider subscribing to The New Yorker and The Paris Review.

Good literature is particularly valuable for writers because literary works have been thoroughly edited, and their writers and editors have carefully considered every paragraph, sentence, and word with an eye toward such matters as rhythm and imagery. Such nuances of stylistic excellence are relevant to legal writers, too. Reading literature — even by listening to audio books — will subtly improve the way you think and write.

Train yourself to read with an eye to both content and style: not just what the writer is saying, but how the writer is saying it. Pay attention to what you like and dislike about different writing styles and consider how to incorporate what you learn into your own writing. Try to notice the rhetorical and argumentative moves a writer is making.

Practice

As John Seabrook put it, “Writing well . . . is, like playing the piano or dribbling a basketball, mostly a matter of doing it. Practice is the only path to mastery.”[1]

Anders Ericsson, a psychologist who studied the acquisition of expertise, argued that expertise is built through deliberate practice. Though Ericsson’s use of that term was nuanced and those nuances are beyond this book’s scope, we can roughly apply his principle as follows: one becomes a better writer by writing a lot while consciously striving to improve one’s craft.

You can resolve to see each writing task as an instance of “practice” that will, if deliberately performed and closely attended to, serve as an opportunity to grow as a writer. You can also seek out opportunities to learn more about the craft of writing by attending legal-writing CLEs, bringing in a writing expert to speak to your firm, hiring a good editor or writing coach, and reading books and articles about writing.

Editing and feedback

I noted above that ego is an enemy of growth. This is particularly true when it comes to editing and feedback, which most of us dread. Lawyers tend to take criticisms of our writing personally, as writing is a core skill of lawyering.

But if you want to improve as a writer, you must overcome any aversion you feel toward editing. You should seek out editing and feedback — the more honest and thorough, the better. Hiring a skilled editor is an excellent investment and should be considered a must-do for lawyers who can afford it.

Footnotes

[1]     John Seabrook, The Next Word: Where Will Predictive Text Take Us?, New Yorker (Oct. 14, 2019).


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Ryan McCarl teaches Advanced Legal Writing and researches artificial intelligence law and policy at the UCLA School of Law. He is also a partner at the law firm Rushing McCarl LLP. You can follow him on LinkedIn and Twitter as well as his personal blog.