fingers typing on laptop keyboard

NaNoWriMo: No SloMo

A friend is currently participating in NaNoWriMo, and has just emailed to tell me how she is getting on. I realized that lawyers can learn a lot from this competition. 

For those unfamiliar with NaNoWriMo, the acronym stands for National Novel Writing Month, a competition that runs throughout November. It was established in 1999, but its success has been such that its name has become something of a misnomer. Thousands of its participants are from outside the US. But I digress ... 

Comparing Objectives

The object of the competition is simple: to write a novel within a month. More specifically, the winners are those who manage to write 50,000 words in November. My friend has made a solid start, with 10,000 words in the first week, so she’s certainly in the running. 

Lawyers and law students should take note of that feat alone. 10,000 words is about the length of the average law school paper. Yet many students struggle to write that in a whole semester! Unfortunately, as many practising1 1 My US English spellchecker wants me to render this as “practicing.” Now there are many American spellings with which I am perfectly comfortable, and even some that I prefer. But that is a bridge too far! attorneys have confessed to me, the fear of — or reluctance or inability to — write documents of medium length and longer is a problem that continues to dog many lawyers after law school and into practice. So it is an issue that law schools should be addressing much more systematically. 

False Comparison?

No doubt some readers would like to respond by asserting that I am comparing apples with oranges. According to this objection, writing a novel and writing a legal document are two such different activities that any comparison must inevitably be superficial or misleading. 

In fact, however, such a response only serves to highlight what I consider to be the biggest failing of most legal writing instruction. 

Timing

Early on in the typical Legal (Research and) Writing class, students are provided a list of do’s and don’ts. The do’s will include things like “find your own voice,” “write for your audience,” and “make an outline.” The don’ts will warn against such apparent evils as using nominalizations or the passive voice. 

Some of this advice is good; some of it is worthless, but probably harmless too; and some it is utterly wrong-headed. (I intend to address the specifics of the guidance in future posts.) But the quality or otherwise of such advice is not the fundamental problem. That real issue is that this advice is given at entirely the wrong time and ends up as almost entirely counter-productive. 

A Process

Writing of any length is a process to be accomplished over several hours, days, or even weeks. And, like any other process of similar duration, writing involves a number of stages. These may be set out as follows: 

  1. Drafting
  2. Re-Drafting (an iterative process that will typically need doing several, or even many, times)
  3. Editing (sometimes performed by a person other than the author)
  4. Re-Editing (another iterative process that will typically need doing several, or even many, times, and sometimes performed by a person other than the author)
  5. Presentation (or Publishing)

Unfortunately, most legal writing instruction doesn’t seem to appreciate that these stages are quite distinct, with each having a different goal and technique. So the advice currently given to law students might make sense at Stage 3, 4, or 5. But it is utterly counter-productive when someone is about to embark on Stage 1. 

Rule 1 for Legal Writing

In fact, the first rule of legal writing is to write the first draft quickly. And I mean quickly

NaNoWriMo demonstrates that 50,000 words per month is easily achievable. If my friend can write 10,000 words in a week while caring for two small children and a husband, cooking meals, and keeping house, then that should present no problem for any lawyer or law student who has the best part of the working week in which to write. 

The notion that writing at a slower pace will improve the quality of the first draft, and that this will, in turn, reduce the amount of re-drafting and editing required, is little more than self-deception. The truth is that, no matter how much effort the writer puts into them, first drafts of legal writing always suck. 

Don’t believe me? In thirty years, I have yet to find any lawyer who is happy to let someone else read his or her first draft. Legal writing becomes good legal writing only after it has been through multiple drafts and edits. So the sooner you can get the first draft finished, the sooner you can get to the stages that promote quality. 

Indeed, for almost all lawyers (though perhaps less so for novelists) it is much easier to edit a document than to write it from scratch. So write at speed and edit at comparative leisure. 

Writing Gone Wrong

Now let’s consider again just one example of the effect of the advice typically given by legal writing instructors. As noted earlier, law students are typically told to “find your own voice” and “write for your audience.” But how on earth is a novice legal writer supposed to find his or her own voice if, at the same time, s/he is supposed to be conscious of the audience for whom s/he is writing? (Experienced legal writers might be able to make some sense of these two orders. But they are, by definition, experienced, so the advice is redundant.) 

The effect on most students who receive such confusing advice is paralysis. They dare not start writing because they don’t know what they are supposed to do. So instead they get researching, in the hope that this will make things clearer. In fact, however, this only tends to make things worse. Because now they have a ton of notes, and yet they remain none the wiser as to how to put them all together. 

Well-meaning but badly-timed advice thus turns into a major contributor to writer’s block. 

First Drafts Done Right

NaNoWriMo, on the other hand, has it right. Write the first draft fast. Tons of half-baked prose is better than little or none at all. It can always be polished later. 

So here are the do’s and don’ts appropriate to Stage 1. Don’t second-guess yourself, and don’t even think about the quality of what you are writing. In fact, anything that inhibits the speedy writing of the first draft should ideally be ignored or eliminated. 

And remember that a first draft should be for the eyes of the writer only. So try to make writing fun. Bad jokes are fine. (Good jokes are fine too.) Ranting is also fine, while badly mixed metaphors and implausible allusions are almost required. 

So long as you write out a whole first draft, and don’t get fixated on just one part, then virtually anything goes. Because no-one will read it but you. You need to have been through Stage 2 at least once before you allow anyone else near your prose. 

Rule 2: The Right Tool

If you follow Rule 1, you’ll soon realize that Rule 2 is just as important. (If you try writing 50,000 words in one Microsoft Word document, you’ll probably be near-suicidal by the end.) Word is just not the right tool for the job. 

NaNoWriMo provides a lesson here too. One of its sponsors is Scrivener, a writing tool designed specifically for novelists and other creative writers. It’s what my friend is using. It’s not designed for legal work, though (even if some lawyers do use it). 

Instead, I suggest using an alternative program, called NoteCase Pro, which is much more powerful and flexible. (Think OneNote on steroids.) 

But I’ll leave a discussion of the usage of writing software (as well as Rules 3 and beyond) for future posts. I’ve got an exam to write! 

Footnotes

1My US English spellchecker wants me to render this as “practicing.” Now there are many American spellings with which I am perfectly comfortable, and even some that I prefer. But that is a bridge too far!