Beating Writer’s Block, May2021 SCBJ, SC Lawyer, May 2021, #42

AuthorBy Wes B. Allison
PositionVol. 32 Issue 6 Pg. 42

Beating Writer’s Block

No. Vol. 32 Issue 6 Pg. 42

South Carolina BAR Journal

May, 2021

Wes B. Allison is an attorney at the Kahn Law Firm, LLP, in Charleston.

By Wes B. Allison

Carl Hulse, chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times, just says no to perfection. Paul Silvia, Ph.D., a psychologist who works with struggling writers, preaches planning. And when Margaret Talev, past president of the White House Correspondents Association, gets stuck, she grabs a notebook and phones a friend.

Any attorney who has ever tried to convert ideas into the written word has felt it while staring at a blank page: Now what? How do I start? What happened to those great arguments I worked out in my head?

Writer’s block and its homely cousin, procrastination, present real barriers to thoughtful analysis, smooth writing and efficient use of an attorney’s time. Even with weeks to write, lawyers often fnd themselves stuck and frustrated the night before a brief or memorandum is due, trapped in a cycle that psychologist David Rasch, Ph.D., calls “The Wheel of Suffering:” Starting the project with “Unclear, Unrealistic goals,” sauntering past “Day Dreaming” and “Avoidance,” and ending with a thud on “I’ll do Better Next Time.”

Sound familiar?

Before entering law school, I spent almost 20 years as a daily newspaper reporter in South Carolina, Virginia, Florida and Washington, D.C. You learn Day 1 that when your editor says, “I need it now,” she means it. With often only hours or even minutes to produce cogent copy, reporters start crafting their stories on the way back to the newsroom from whatever disaster or City Council meeting they covered, so they are ready write when they get to their desk. Writer’s block happens, of course, but because most journalists have to write so often and so fast, often under difficult conditions, they develop strategies for overcoming blank-page panic.

Most lawyers, by contrast, have the leisure and curse of time. I thought it might be helpful to explore briefly why attorneys often have trouble starting or completing a writing project, then share tips for beating writer’s block from journalists.

And lest one may say, “Yeah, but this is legal writing,” trust me. I’ve done a lot of both. Writing is writing, whether it’s a front-page story, a 30-page appellate brief, a memorandum in support of a motion, a report to your insurance carrier or a demand in a car wreck case. The causes of writer’s block are the same. So are the solutions.

The problem

No one can blame an attorney for getting stuck, even when she is a capable writer. Long deadlines make procrastination easy; there’s always tomorrow, right? Legal material can be obtuse and difficult to make clear and concise. It can be boring. Lawyers can pretty much w rite as long as they like, which provides no incentive to tighten the focus or trim the fat. And the fear of excluding some potentially helpful fact or argument can give way to another sin––excluding nothing. Legal writing needs to be persuasive, but also readable and tight.

Dr. Rasch, a psychologist at University of California at Santa Barbara, said the stakes can be daunting for lawyers.

“You’re doing it for a...

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