Reprogramming Your Writing Intuition

By: Professor Joe Regalia

When I ask judges what frustrates them most about lawyers, the conversation often turns to writing. I hear things like: “attorneys can’t write concisely,” and “why don’t law schools teach law students how to write?” Perhaps these problems persist because when you try to change how you write, you are butting up against years of subconscious habit—what I call your “writing intuition.” And just like making changes to other deep-seated habits in your life, changing your writing intuition takes significant work.

So how do you reprogram your writing intuition? First, identify a list of specific “writing moves” that you want to program into your writing. Second, use some concrete devices to incorporate those moves so that they become part of your writing intuition. Focusing on specific moves rather than generic writing principles keeps the reprogramming process manageable and concrete. More importantly, once you can spot the moves, it will be easier to consciously use them. You will see the moves at work in the things you read and in your own writing. Your “list” of concrete devices to incorporate the moves might include using concrete verbs, transitions, short sentences, and avoiding passive voice and nominalizations. If you cannot think of the key writing moves that you would like to start using, there are dozens of fantastic legal writing books to help you come up with a list, such as Richard Wydick’s Plain English for Lawyers.

Next, reprogram your writing intuition. To accomplish this, use your editing time to program new moves. Edit a draft only for a small handful of writing moves at a time. Mark in your draft each time that you use the move or should have used it. In so doing, you train yourself to spot these moves and wire your brain to recognize when each move is helpful. Focusing on a small batch also keeps the process manageable. Another method is to edit with a checklist, but force yourself to find at least five or ten examples of each move whenever you work on a project. Psychologists also suggest keeping a reminder around your computer screen with the list of moves you are working on and editing others’ writing to add some writing moves that are missing (such as adding transitions to a piece of writing that has none). Finally, there is no better way to reprogram your writing intuition than to read writing that uses effective new moves. So identify some exemplary legal writers that you aspire to emulate and read them voraciously. Even better, mark in the book you are reading each time you spot one of the moves you happen to be working on at the time.

Ultimately, reprogramming your writing intuition is a lifelong pursuit. Look for new moves every day and incorporate them. Also continuously ask yourself whether your current writing moves are worth keeping. The results will speak for themselves.

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