Legal Writing As Poetry

by Jamison Koehler on November 11, 2013

One of my sister’s creative writing teachers told her once that you figure out the line you like best in the piece you have written. And then you delete it.  The chances are good that you have over-invested in this line.  The chances are good that this is the line that is holding your writing back.

Jay O’Keefe says something similar to this in a blog entry he did on appellate writing.  (H/T Scott Greenfield).  In discussing the editing process, he points out that the “stuff that’s the most fun to write – the clever turns of phrase, the biting comeback – is often the least useful to the Court.”  The Court “is not interested in how clever you are, or what a fine young writer you have become.  It just wants results.”

Going back over things I have written with fresh perspective, it is always the overwrought passage that I was once so proud of that detracts from the piece.  It jars and distracts the reader.  And it comes across as pretentious.  The best, most persuasive writing is subtle and simple – almost like poetry.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

mirriam January 6, 2014 at 5:35 pm

I disagree. Maybe not useful, but the court wants to read what you’ve written and sometimes it is the turn of phrase that allows them to open their minds to what you are saying. After all, they are actually human.

Overwrought is one thing. But there is much to be said about a clever turn of phrase. It puts a finer point on it. Without that, all we have is Black’s law dictionary. Yawn.

Jamison Koehler January 6, 2014 at 7:44 pm

Mirriam? Mirriam Seddiq? It has been years since you have commented here. Welcome back.

We can disagree. The most beautiful writing to me is always the simplest. I think, for example, of one of Raymond Carver’s short stories. And courts don’t want you to be clever — that’s something they want to reserve for themselves.

mirriam January 9, 2014 at 3:25 pm

Simple? You didn’t say simple. You said overwrought then clever then turn of phrase. You have to have a ‘way with words’ to express what you want to say in it’s simplest fashion. I don’t think we disagree at all, but I think we don’t agree on what is simple.

Jamison Koehler January 9, 2014 at 3:59 pm

Simple to me means spare — no adverbs and very few adjectives. It is not just that you don’t use a complicated word when a simple one will do. It is also that you don’t you a flowery or descriptive word when you can say the same thing more generally. For example, although creative writing teachers all over the country would disagree with me, you don’t say “chuckle” or “chortle.” You say “laugh.” It is language at its most basic. It is as though you were limited to using 100 of the simplest words in English.

Welcome back. I have missed your comments here.

mirriam January 10, 2014 at 6:03 am

Well, you can turn a phrase with those simple words. In fact, what would distinguish Hemingway from say, well, I won’t mention others who feel Hemingway-esque when they write, but there is some poetry to it. That’s why I said that overwrought is a different category all together. We can’t disagree that there are people who can write simply and make your brain explode with the manner in which they arrange those 100 simple words.

It’s good to be back. I think.

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