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September 18, 2014

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Clarity And Grace--Personified - Writing Well

I am still in the process of trying to write my paper for the Exceptional Legal Writing Course to be given by the State Bar on April 26.

So it is only fair that you suffer along with me.

The challenge for me is how to make something abstract interesting. How do you make clear writing . . . clear? How do we know when good is good?

One way that worked for me was to find a good piece of strong writing and then ruin it. Take something taut and reverse engineer it into something you'd find in a law school or the Environmental Protection Agency.

(Governments and institutions are particularly good at removing all humanity from the written word. They are kind of the neutron bomb for prose.)

After the jump, a teaser.

Last time, I wrote about how English brains long for that click between subject and verb. That click is most satisfying when we give a good, strong, and simple verb to a character capable of acting it out.

But Noooooo. We always want to try and sound smart. So we tack suffixes onto the ends of perfectly healthy, Anglo-Saxon verbs and turn them into wimpy, Latin nouns--a process called nominalization, which is itself a nominalization.

"So, what?" you ask. Nominalizing good prose disguises who the characters are and what they are doing. It sucks the story write out of your story, and puts the suck right into your writing.

Want proof? Imagine that it is the late 1930s and the British government tries to reassure the populace with bureaucratic tripe like this:

Defense of the island will be conducted notwithstanding the costs incurred. Fighting will be necessary on the beaches, the landing grounds, in the streets, in the hills. Surrender will never happen.

Or

Provision of the tools will result in the finishing of the assignment.

Look all the suffixes: -nse, -ing, -ion. Look at all the verbs turned into nouns: defense, fighting, surrender, provide, finish. Why not use verbs as verbs and use subjects like “We” and the imperative “You.”

We shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be,
we shall fight on the beaches,
we shall fight on the landing grounds,
we shall fight in the fields and in the streets,
we shall fight in the hills;
we shall never surrender.
 

Or
 

Give us the tools; we will finish the job.
 

If ever a greater contrast were needed, just look at the way Neville Chamberlain announced Britain's declaration of war. The main character in his message is not the British people or even the British government, but a note. And war is not declared for a purpose, it just kind of happens because the poor little note received no response:

This morning the British Ambassador in Berlin handed the German Government a final note stating that, unless we hear from them by 11 o'clock that they were prepared at once to withdraw their troops from Poland, a state of war would exist between us. I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received, and that consequently this country is at war with Germany.

A bad news message delivered poorly. It is as if Britain passed Germany a note in class: "Do you like me? Check "yes" or "no."

If you want to inspire or persuade, write stories. Whether it is a brief or a letter or a novel, write stories. Write prose where characters do things. Make them do things early in the sentence as often as possible, and don't disguise who they are.

In short, be Winston Churchill, not Neville Chamberlain.

Easy. Right?

© 2014 Andrews Kurth LLP

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About this Author

Kendall M. Gray, Antitrust Litigation Attorney, Andrews Kurth Law Firm
Partner

Kendall is a board certified civil appellate specialist who has represented clients in state and federal appellate courts such as the U.S. Supreme Court, the U.S. Courts of Appeal for the Fifth, Ninth, Tenth and Federal Circuits, the Supreme Court of Texas and many intermediate courts of appeal. His practice includes a variety of complex commercial, medical malpractice and toxic tort matters, as well as a particular focus in disputes involving employee benefits, managed care and ERISA. The disputes commonly require complex written and oral advocacy on such topics as ERISA preemption,...

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