On Writing

Editing Lessons from Law School

Law ImageMy eldest son attends law school where he spends much of his time reading and writing. Legal writing interests me because I have spent much of my own career interacting with attorneys and reviewing legal documents. As a fiction writer I always seek the clearest words and sentences to convey my story. Legal writing, however, is something different and to watch a young mind such as my son’s learn the trade is a fascinating process. Legal writing is in at least some ways not so different from fiction writing, although at first glance it may not appear so.

The language of legalese is a blend of latin and english words separated by numbered or lettered paragraphs that are always full justified and never contain an indent (there might be exceptions but I am not a bar certified attorney). It seems that “clarity” in legal documents means to write very long sentences that require…well an attorney…to truly understand. Of course it is not all bad. One does get to use words such as “henceforth” and “herein” and lovely terms such as “limited warranties” and “clauses by reference shall have the same force and effect as if the clauses were given in full text.” I kind of wish I could put that in my books – “plot lines referenced but not expanded upon shall have the same force and effect as if they had been thus the reader is to assume they actually existed in the story and critique said story as if it contained the possible story lines the reader henceforth wished that it had herein.”

It would appear that fiction writers would not want an attorney to edit their stories. In part because eighty or ninety thousands words would be reduced to about three pages. Contracts may seem long, but in actuality legal documents do not contain any sentence that is not directly related to defining the matter or the conditions of the matter at hand. The second issue would be the required “striking” (the way contract attorneys say “delete”) of anything that looks like a potential promise or unsubstantiated fact or occurrence. Case in point:

Attorney: Mr. Esposito, you state that your book series in an “epic” saga.

Me: Yes, I do.

Attorney: Well technically the term “epic” refers to a long narrative poem. Am I to assume that this is a long narrative poem?

Me: No. I meant epic more in the common usage – it’s marketing.

Attorney: No, but I’m not comfortable that a person might exchange money for an “epic” book that clearly violates the legal definition of the term.

Me: What do you suggest?

Attorney: I would just state that it is a series.

Me: Not much flash in that

Attorney: Also in the prologue you write that the these Creepers began to turn in June.

Me: I did.

Attorney: “Turn” is a little vague unless you meant they went in another direction. I would suggest more clarity like “the first humans became infected in or around the month of June. Henceforth uninfected humans referred to these alleged infected humans as Creepers and herein the term “creepers” shall be inseparable from other terms related to one who has contracted the X virus such that they behave with intent to kill and or consume the flesh of non-infected humans including but not limited in meaning or scope to such terms as “infected,” “turned,” “zombies” and the like.

Me: I should state “and the like”

Attorney: No that is for you to add any other term you use or might use to describe Creepers.

Me: Okay – Anything else

Attorney: Overall I would strike any direct dialog as it is all heresay and redact any references to any possible outcome because in legal terms it is “prayer”.

Me: Prayer? It’s not a religious story

Attorney: <Sighs demonstrating possible discontent with my ignorance> Prayer is something you “wish” to happen but of which has no direct support from the rule of law or previous case history.

Me: That doesn’t leave much of a story, how am I to convey characters without those things.

Attorney: Well I would warn against any direct character references at all unless you can provide supporting evidence and also please ensure you remove any adjectives such as those related to possible emotions or states of mind.

Me: So I can’t write that a character was sad.

Attorney: Only if there exists direct evidence such as a character admission. So if the character states, “I am sad” that would be fine, but if he or she had for example tears, it could be argued that they might conversely have allergies.

Me: That wouldn’t be much of a story. I’m confused. Can you give me a summary of how you would rewrite my story?

Attorney: Oh I’d be happy to. In my opinion, most writing contains superfluous information not required to convey the meaning. I would write your story in this manner.

In addition to the aforementioned definition of the “Creepers” as provided herein, a group of non-infected people meet, become a group as by evidence of setting uniformed goals and engage on a journey, herein defined as going from one place to another and whereas they travel no less than one thousand miles and no greater than fourteen hundred miles. During the aforementioned travel they have several conflicts – you can list each conflict separately as an addendum – as they attempt to survive. I would suggest a paragraph or two that clearly details the terms and meaning of “survival.” At which the journey comes to a conclusion.

Me: Can I write that we learn the fate of the survivors?

Attorney: You can write that we learn up to that point the state of their being, but that you provide no warranties or promises with regards to any final outcome or future occurrences as it relates to the overall “survival” of the characters.

Me: Fun, I’ll get on that.

Of course there was one thing that I have learned from my son’s law school experience. That although legal writing has a certain amount of crazy conditions it does share a similar goal with fiction. That goal is to take the reader on a very specific journey and one where the words add to understanding not confuse or distract from the meaning. I recognized that point in my latest discussion with my son. He told me a story that one of his professors had shared with the class. I cannot say whether the professors story is true or one of those things of urban law school legend, but it is a good lesson nonetheless.

When this professor was a student in law school, his class had a writing assignment. They handed it in and in the next meeting the professor stated, “I have reviewed your submissions and I’d like to give everyone the opportunity to revise and resubmit.” The class of course took the revision opportunity as grades are critical in law school. A week later the professor again addressed the class. “Your papers were better, but I think you can make them more concise and direct, so I want to give you another opportunity to resubmit.” The students again went to work on their papers. On the day they submitted their third revisions the professor again addressed the class and stated, “Excellent, now I will actually read your papers.”

Although fiction writers don’t write as attorneys, we still wish to convey “tight” and well-written stories. Removing the “stuff” that sounds “nice” but doesn’t add to the reader’s experience is a good thing. Clearly showing why story lines and actions make sense is also a good thing. And ultimately ensuring that our stories contain no purple prose, info dumps, confusing or irrelevant back stories or subplots is critical to the reader’s ability to appreciate and enjoy the worlds we create.

So I guess in the end, there are at least some editing lessons we can take from law school – insert here disclaimer as to whether you will actually share in the experience of this post containing any or partial editing lessons learned from law school or how said potential experience may improve your future writing.


Categories: On Writing

2 replies »

  1. Maybe some readers LIKE info dumps! Maybe they PREFER purple prose!

    Sorry. I’m just being an ass. This post made me realize how little reading I actually do. Mostly, I skim. Common words are so familiar, I absorb them with a glance. When attempting to decipher legalese, I’m oddly slow. I will not admit how long it took me to read this…

Keep it sane

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