Lawyers: listen to your writing

Little books about little writing are everywhere these days. The one that I can’t put down right now is Verlyn Klinkenborg’s Several short sentences about writing. This book takes on the dogmata of writing instruction in both its substance (outlining is overrated–gasp!) and its style (poetic prose or prose-like poetry; whatever it is, it’s more fun to read than a standard “how to write better” manual).

Although Several short sentences about writing is not tailored for lawyers, a high percentage of its criticisms and advice apply to legal writing:

  • Sentences that are trying too hard to sound like what an expert would write? Yes, we’ve definitely got those.
  • Sentences with unintentional repetition and other unpleasing rhythms? Yes, got those too.
  • Sentences that are overly long with no good reason to be that way? Check.

The book has a particularly interesting section on the role of listening in improving one’s writing. “Read your work out loud” is not revolutionary advice, but my sense is that few people actually do it. Maybe that’s because it takes time and needs to be done right. Klinkenborg digs into why it works and how to do it:

Try reading your work aloud.

The ear is much smarter than they eye,

If only because it’s also slower

And because the eye can’t see rhythm or hear unwanted repetition.

Klinkenborg raises and dismisses a couple of reasons writers may passively resist this practice. They may do it wrong, reading like a robot and therefore revealing very little about the prose. Or they may expect too much, thinking it will erase their own knowledge as writer so they can commune directly with the reader. That is just not possible, and Klinkenborg argues for more of a middle position:

But how should you read aloud?

There’s self-awareness even in this, 

A tendency to overdramatize or become self-conscious,

To read as though the words weren’t yours,

Mechanically, without listening,

As though you were somehow hiding from their sound

Or merely fulfilling a rote obligation.

Try reading the words on the page as though they were meant to be spoken plainly

To a listener who is both you and not you–

An imaginary listener seated not too far away.

That way your attention isn’t only on the words you’re reading.

it’s on the transmission of those words.

As you read aloud, catch the rhythm of the sentences without overemphasizing it.

Read so the listener can hear the shape of the syntax,

You be the listener, not another person.

You’ll be stopping often.

This idea of stopping is integral to his major theme about writing: notice things. You don’t need training in grammatical or rhetorical jargon just to notice something is or isn’t working in your sentences. Something “sounds funny.” You’ll feel a “subtle disturbance,” a “faint stirring[].” And when this happens, stop. And fix the problem.

There is a longer-term benefit to reading your work out loud as well, the book points out. Consistently reading your work out loud will “help you discern the underlying texture of your prose.” The act of reading out loud demonstrates the reader’s understanding, or lack thereof:  “[h]ow well you read aloud reveals how well you understand the syntax of a sentence.” And understanding the syntax of the sentence is a key toward being able to manage the shape of future sentences you will write and edit.

Klinkenborg’s prose/poetry will be uncomfortable, at least at first, for many lawyers used to our judicial opinions and IRACs, our demand letters and our contracts. But his overall approach to writing couldn’t be more on-point to what we do:

Know what each sentence says,

What it doesn’t say,

And what it implies.

To be able to do these three things, writers need to start by just noticing what the writing is doing. Listening to the sound of your own writing is one way to notice.

Lawyers, law students, and legal professionals: have you ever read your work out loud? Why did you get started and how do you do it? Some readers may have tried this practice but stopped. Does Klinkenborg’s approach persuade you to try again? Please share your comments, experiences, and advice on reading your work out loud as a writing and editing practice.