Benjamin Wright recently joined the Casetext Insights vlog to discuss writing for bar publications. We covered process and promotion, then Ben focused on the actual craft of writing a good bar article. His thoughts will help you write a compelling piece for your state bar.
How Good is Good Enough?
When I asked Ben how to write an article that will move the publication’s editors, he chuckled a bit.
Bars and professional publications of all kinds everywhere are constantly looking for content. Don’t think that it’s gonna be a huge challenge to get whatever you want to write published. I don’t think that that’s gonna be a challenge.
As a former bar books attorney editor, Ben knows something about the standards of those publications. And although he was quick to point out that high writing quality isn’t necessary to be chosen, it is vital to fill the purpose of your writing: to help others.
A Better Formula
Ben shared a four part formula to help legal writers create articles that do the difficult work explaining the law. He began with the advice of Sir Ernest Gowers from his book titled Plain Words.
It was written for the British Civil Service. He described their job as explaining the law to millions.
Gowers trained the Civil Service officers to condense legal complexities and make them accessible to everyday readers. He promoted four writing ideals that may help you craft your own bar publication article: short, simple, human, and correct.
Keep it Correct
Ben started with Gowers’ last principle, believing it to be the one we lawyers already take seriously. But he spoke about it almost as a warning.
I think as lawyers we focus so much on being correct. Yes, we want correct legal analysis – we want to explain the law and be right about that – but that’s kind of table stakes.
As Ben points out, correctness doesn’t differentiate good articles from bad ones.
Anybody can tell you what the relevant statute is and then explain it. A lot of articles unfortunately start and end there. They’re basically a dry exposition of what the law is.
To stand out from the pack of expository articles, try building upon Gowers’ recommendations to make your writing more accessible. His other three principles will help you do that.
Keep it Short
“The article that’s short,” Ben explained to me, “doesn’t waste words.”
There are so many articles that really beat around the bush. They don’t get to the point right away.
If you want your article to stand out and really help people, try organizing it in a way that makes your argument clear early in the piece. That kind of writing is adapted to your likely audience.
Your readers are often going to be lawyers. They are only half interested in your article. They’re skimming through and are very inclined to skip over anything that doesn’t seem relevant right away. If you waste two or three paragraphs on stuff that just isn’t really relevant or is just clearing your throat, you’re going to get skipped.
It can seem risky to cut to the chase in an article – maybe with a long story at the beginning you’ll “hook” a passerby – but the purpose of your bar article is not to catch every fish. Your goal is to identify the people who want and need your particular insights. By clearly stating your article’s purpose early, you’ll get them on the line.
It’s so easy to stand out if you just put a little bit of effort into editing into making sure that you’re cutting out stuff that’s not necessary.
Keep it Simple
Related to the idea of brevity, Ben suggests that you use humble and plain language to express your ideas.
Part of using language economically is employing only those words that get your point across. That means that the words you choose can’t be a distraction. Try to write in a way that focuses on the message by avoiding “look at me” language.
Simplicity is the best way to keep a reader’s attention.
Keep it Human
“The human element is kind of that special sauce on top,” Ben explained to me. Keeping it human involves making your piece relatable as well as expressive. Your reader has to see him- or herself in the piece.
One way to accomplish this is to provide examples.
Don’t just say “I bequeath Blackacre to so and so.” Give a real life example or share your actual experience. Ask, how does this actually impact people, or, how does this actually play out when you practice it in real life. Those are the things that are really helpful.
Imagine the emotional and intellectual journey you’re asking your reader to go through in order to accept your arguments, then map that journey in your writing. Give real life examples that light the way. Make it easy for the reader to arrive at your conclusion before asking them to believe you. This impact will fulfill the purpose of your writing the article in the first place.
That’s what will really build your reputation and help other people.
As Ben pointed out, helping people is a better standard for writing than satisfying an editor.
Want to Learn More about Writing Well?
To see the entire interview with Ben, check out the video below…
And take a look at the other articles in this series on better writing for lawyers. We’re happy to support the development of good writing habits and would love a chance to explain how you can incorporate Casetext’s AI-enabled research tools to enhance your skills.