Do you know it when you hear it?

 

When taking a deposition, can you immediately recognize the testimony you want to quote in a later dispositive motion? Do the words jump out at you like a “nugget” in a “treasure hunt”?

Legal writing and nonfiction writing have a lot in common, as a recent New Yorker article by John McPhee suggested. I studied his work in journalism school and continue to follow it more as a hobby than anything strictly related to lawyering. But McPhee’s article on selecting material is very much relevant to what lawyers do in taking depositions and conducting witness examinations to generate powerful, memorable words later used in writing such as motions and briefs.

The article is Omission: Choosing What to Leave Out (September 14, 2015). This post explores his essay and draws some points of contrast with legal writing, before arriving at the real connection to listening, which is the art of the quotation. McPhee is partly a luxury for the novelists disguised as lawyers among us, but here’s the pragmatic sell:

Lawyers who can elicit, recognize, remember, and effectively frame quotations in writing have an advantage in their writing and advocacy just as creative nonfiction writers do. In other words, being an effective listener leads to more persuasive writing and lawyering.

McPhee’s broad point in Omission was to explore the experience and process of cutting his own work and having it cut. From the beginning to the end, “[w]riting is selection”:

Just to start a piece of writing you have to choose one word and only one from more than a million in the language. Now keep going. What is your next word? Your next sentence, paragraph, section, chapter?

And then when the draft is complete, it may need to be cut in order to fit on a magazine page, or just because readers may not persevere through 40,000 words about a topic such as oranges. It’s not surprising that he wrote 40,000 words on oranges because, according to McPhee, the decision to leave something in should be based on whether it is “interesting to you.”

And by “you,” he means the “you” doing the writing, not the hypothetical “you” doing the reading:

At base you have only one criterion: If something interests you, it goes in—if not, it stays out. That’s a crude way to assess things, but it’s all you’ve got. Forget market research. Never market-research your writing. Write on subjects in which you have enough interest on your own to see you through all the stops, starts, hesitations, and other impediments along the way.

This writer-centric view is very different from client-driven legal writing such as trial and appellate advocacy. If you as a lawyer writing on behalf of a client and putting something in because it interests you personally, you may be on the wrong track. In some cases, I’ve seen writers insert comments in their memos and briefs such as “Interestingly, . . . .”

These types of comments are rarely effective. And in that sense, the tenets of good legal writing and good nonfiction writing come back into accord, as McPhee instructs: “If you see yourself prancing around between subject and reader, get lost.”

After exploring these thoughts on how to select material, McPhee narrowed the focus to selecting quotations. He received the following inquiry from a reader:

“I was curious—do you know right away when you hear a quote you want to include in the story, or do you usually mine for it through your notes?”

He responded in part as follows:

Dear Minami—Across my years as a writer and a writing teacher, I have been asked myriad questions about the reporting and compositional process but not before now this basic one of yours. And the answer comes forth without a moment’s contemplation: I know right away when I hear a quote I’ll want to include in the story.

McPhee is a master of weaving themes throughout his writing. (For anyone who likes thinking about themes and structures in writing—such as modifications to the “IRAC” format taught and derided in legal writing—read McPhee’s incredible essay, Structure.)

In the essay on omission, the theme comes back again and again:

Writing is selection.

He doesn’t explicitly mention listening very much, but it runs throughout.

McPhee takes copious notes so he can have lots to choose from later. (In a separate article, Elicitation, he goes into more depth about creating conversational settings for interviews, and how he uses a tape recorder unobtrusively when possible.)

He doesn’t need good notes to recognize a “nugget” in the “treasure hunt” immediately when he hears it.

And he brings affection to his work; about one subject, he says, “I loved just listening to him talk.” The joy McPhee described is perhaps not exactly what a lawyer experiences sitting at the deposition table for hours on end—until that moment of hearing a perfect quote that will ice the dispositive motion. (Forget about the Bluebook;

Forget about the Bluebook; block-quote it for emphasis even if it’s only one word.

That’s a type of joy unto itself.

 

 

 

 

 

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