First, I’ve always been a passionate reader. Reading the good writing of others is not only great fun, it’s indispensable for learning to write well.
Second, in college I double majored in Philosophy and Literature-Writing. These years taught me to write very quickly. In a pinch, I would often leave myself only a very few hours–sometimes only 2 or 3–to write a paper that I could have worried over for days. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this habit of procrastination–not recommended for everyone–which required me to organize my thoughts and write coherent prose very rapidly, was probably the best preparation for the writing skills I use almost everyday as a lawyer.
Third was law school. I don’t like to think that law school did much to shape my writing. I didn’t get along with the IRAC method† at first. As you can imagine, philosophers and literary thinkers tend to (1) doubt anything called a “Rule,” (2) live in the realm of “Analysis,” and (3) sometimes never get to any “Conclusion.” If you’re a law student who struggles with adapting to IRAC, I feel your pain. Take refuge in the knowledge that you’ll one day grasp the beauty of the IRAC method. You’ll master it eventually, or fail the bar exam.
I did benefit from Law Review, however. The journal experience helped me get the hang of editing the writing of others. It also helped hone my citation skills and attention to detail.
Without a doubt, the biggest influence on my legal writing has been the tireless editing and revision by my longtime mentor. For the first five or so years of my career, I always dreaded getting back any first or second draft. Would it be as consumed with red ink as the one that came before?
But he persisted and his tutelage paid off. I learned to write much more crisply and economically. My legal writing became less linguistically rich, but shorter and clearer. And while there were things he did that occasionally drove me absolutely batshit, I really appreciate the time and effort he took working with me to help develop my writing and advocacy skills. I’m now flattered on those rare instances when he seeks out my input on an issue or document.
Now I am occasionally the one with the red pen marking up someone else’s work. This is a big responsibility, and should be treated as such. I came across an interesting New York Times interview of Jonathan Klein, the C.E.O. of Getty Images. Among the issues he discussed was “leadership lessons” he learned from his time at Getty Images. He said this:
“I’ve learned a lot from my executive coach. Anytime someone came to me to show me their work, I would critique it. I would almost behave like a schoolteacher–my mother was a teacher–and bring out the metaphorical red pen. And what I didn’t appreciate at the time is that before you mess around the edges, you’ve got to say to yourself, ‘Am I going to make this significantly better, or am I going to make it only 5 or 10 percent better?’ Because in fiddling over the small stuff, you take away all the empowerment. Basically it no longer becomes that person’s work. After a while, those people get into the habit of giving you incomplete work, and then you have to do it for them.”
Heavy is the hand that carries the (not-so-) metaphorical red pen, right? At least with respect to my writing, I always felt that my mentor’s revisions made the end product “significantly better.” In other words, the red ink was clearly worth his time, my attention and the attendant blow to whatever misplaced or unearned sense of “empowerment” I had as a baby lawyer. But I recognize that I don’t always revise someone else’s work either to help make them a better writer or to make the product “significantly better.” Rather, I’m just making it sound more like I wrote it. And, as Jonathan Klein points out, that’s the wrong approach. I need–we all need–to learn to go easier with that red pen.
†For the benefit of readers outside law, IRAC means Issue, Rule, Analysis and Conclusion. It is how law students, lawyers and judges typically approach a set of facts. In a nutshell, one “spots” or identifies an Issue, articulates or recalls the Rule, Analyzes how the Rule should be applied under the particular facts, and reaches a Conclusion.