Write on

Publication year2021
Vol. 46 No. 4 Pg. 36
Vermont Bar Journal
Winter, 2021

The Importance of Finding Your Voice as a Writer

By Catherine Fregosi, Esq.

My writing students sometimes ask me for recommendations for books that will improve their writing. They are often just looking for books that will help them with grammar. In those cases, I recommend Strunk & White’s classic or the Redbook. But every so often a student is not looking for a basic tutorial but is, instead, looking for a book that will turn their work into elegant, flowing prose, precise in its details, poetic in its phrasing, and, of course, persuasive in its legal argument. The truth is that no such book exists.

There are plenty of books that instruct on punctuation. They may also help students understand how to construct sentences or even paragraphs. Other books teach about the organization of a legal document. And finally, there are books that explore rhetorical and other techniques that can make writing sing. Each of these kinds of books has a place in legal writing instruction and usefulness to both the law student and the legal practitioner, but none of these really tell readers how to make the leap from correct writing to the kind of writing to which my students aspire. Elevating writing above the everyday requires that an author finds their own voice and allows that voice to come through in writing. That skill comes through practice rather than instruction. Nonetheless, this column will attempt to show why legal writers should be mindful of the voice that comes through their work, as well as give some tips on how to develop that voice.

The first step to great writing is correct writing. Correct writing is writing that follows the rules. Correct writing uses punctuation properly and follows common rules regarding word choice, sentence length, and general readability. There are many books that address correct legal writing. They instruct on how and why to keep sentences short, avoid passive tense and nominalizations, and, all other things being equal, choose simple over more complex phrasing. The focus of writing correctly is clarity: A correctly written legal work should be clear and easily understood by the reader. Each discrete element of correct writing is designed to enhance clarity, such that the author’s intended meaning is unmistakable. Thus, for instance, legal writing texts tell students and practitioners to use the serial comma so that readers will understand at a glance that a list includes independent rather than connected terms. Likewise, texts generally tell their readers to favor short sentences because shorter sentences are more likely to stick to the rule that each sentence should include a single thought; presenting thoughts in this mechanical manner ensures that readers will pick up each thought as it appears. Most students and practitioners have little trouble producing correct writing.

Once a legal writer has mastered the rules of correct writing, the writer can move on to the next step: writing with a strong authorial voice. Voice transforms correct writing into great writing. It does so by building connection with the reader. When a work has a voice, the reader gets a glimpse of the writer’s mind at work and, for better or worse, some sense of who the writer is as a person. In The Elements of Style, Strunk & White wrote that “[a]ll writers, by the way they use the language, reveal something of their spirits, their habits, their capacities, and their biases.”[1] While The Elements of Style is not dedicated to legal writing, this sentiment is more or less as true for legal writing as for any other kind of writing. And thus, the idea that “writing is communication through revelation—it is the Self escaping into the open” should be read to apply to all forms of writing, both creative and legal.[2] Great legal writers are mindful of the revelation inherent in their written work and craft a voice appropriate to their audience and the subject of their text.

Thus, the first step in adding voice to your writing is awareness that, like it or not, intended or otherwise, a sense of the author as a person will come through in written work. The author may come across as logical, organized, and attentive to detail; such qualities may be conveyed through writing that takes legal analysis one step at a time, includes thoughtful...

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