The Simple Path to Becoming a Better Legal Writer

Learn how to write better legal documents, from your first draft to final edits with an easy step-by-step guide to becoming better at their craft.
  • Joe Regalia
How do you actually see progress in your legal skills? It’s not as easy as taking a course or attending a training. Real progress on requires commitment and a plan.
Two steps will make this possible.
  • First, identify a list of specific techniques that you want to improve.
  • Second, use concrete practices to incorporate these moves so that they become part of your everyday practice habits

Identifying specific techniques you want to improve

Let’s talk about the first step. There is power in focusing on training specific techniques rather than relying on generic principles. Breaking down your writing or practice into distinct techniques that you can practice with purpose is what allows the magic to happen.
Imagine you’ve always dreamed of playing the violin. You say to yourself one day, “I’m going to do it!” You hop on Amazon and buy a nice violin, a tuner—and everything else WikiHow suggests you’ll need to get started. What would be the next step? Would you google some tips on playing the violin better? You’d probably get some best practices like to “always watch your arm form.” But that wouldn’t help. Because you don’t even know where your arm goes. Would you go to a one-hour lecture on “violin playing 101”? Maybe you’d learn where to put your fingers, but that’s about it.
Of course, you would do more: You’d sign up for lessons. Every week, you would show up and your teacher would demonstrate a new set of techniques. Chords, finger positions, vibrato, progression. The discrete things you must learn—and practice until mastery—before you can play the instrument. After you learned one technique, you’d move on to the next. The first couple of weeks you’d learn the basic notes on the basic strings. The next week you’d learn a new finger position.
Most importantly: When you messed up something, you and your teacher would have a vocabulary to talk about it so you could figure out how to get better: “You’re struggling with that D note and your fourth finger transition. I'll give you some exercises to work on it.” And then you would start seeing and hearing the problems yourself. You would practice the technique more. And you’d get better.
The same is true for legal writing and other legal skills. Your learning process starts by being able to identify all the nuts and bolts that come together to make your skills work. Take writing: understanding how your writing works—from grammar to style to persuasion to rule analysis—is the key to unlocking your training. Only then can you begin to talk about how to use and improve things. Only then can you even see this stuff working in the first place.
By breaking down all the things happening in good writing into discrete techniques you start to create a vocabulary in your mind for spotting the techniques at work and, best of all, training yourself to use them.
Finding the techniques you want to learn is easy. Use Write.law, which has the biggest list of techniques out there. Or use other writing authorities. You can also use feedback others have given you, as well as your own reflection.
The key is to set aside time to identify what specific techniques you want to improve. Then we can get down to making results happen.

Ok, I’ve decided what techniques I want to improve, how do I do it?

Like training any skill, you need a plan for how to make these techniques your own so that you use them in everyday situations. The key is to set aside time to identify what specific techniques you want to improve. Then we can get down to making results happen.
Studies show that many of us love the “feeling” of learning—that emotion you get when you’re surfing the interwebs and read a profound article. “Wow!” you think. “This is fascinating!” You read voraciously, close the browser window, and go about your day. Science suggests that you literally just got a learning high. You felt like you learned something. You felt like you got smarter. And that felt good. But really, nothing changed in your brain. You probably won’t even remember what you read a few days later.
Sorry to be the one to tell you this, but we humans are bad at learning new skills. We’ve externalized our knowledge—by believing that answers are on the internet, for example, studies suggest our brains feel less impetus to learn. Programming new knowledge into our long-term memories is tough and not fun. And taking that stored knowledge and turning it into workable skills is downright dreadful.
Most importantly, you need to set aside consistent time to work on your writing skills. That means creating a plan and a schedule so that you stay accountable and work on techniques that will drive results.
Like any other skill you want to build, you must be smart about the time you set aside to work on your writing. Keep your plan manageable, build slowly, and make sure you keep your workouts fun and varied.
A couple final thoughts in structuring your writing practice. Charles Duhigg, an expert on behavioral psychology, suggests that most people fail to adopt new habits simply because they don’t understand how they work on the psychological level. Most importantly, they fail to realize that habits are triggered, which causes an action—and achieves a reward. This trigger > action > reward pattern is at the heart of habits.
It works like this:
  • The Cue or Trigger: This is the part of the habit loop where you are triggered to take some sort of action through a cue in your internal or external environment.
  • The Action: Good or bad, this is the part of the habit loop where you actually take action on the habit you want to adopt or drop.
  • The Reward: This is the part of the habit loop where your brain receives a reward for taking the desired activity (or not as you will see in just a second).
To create new habits, you need to fit this same pattern. Create a trigger—say, by including a reminder to work on your writing or other skill. Then take an action based on that trigger. Finally, the fun part, reward yourself! Don’t shirk this last bit. Whether it’s some candy or a few minutes of your favorite YouTube channel. Reward yourself for good behavior.
Some important ingredients of your skills training plan should include:
  • Ask for feedback regularly and with purpose. Set expectations with your feedback-giver ahead of time. Schedule feedback meetings well in advance. Ask your giver for specifics and take careful notes.
  • Keep track of your weaknesses and specific techniques you want to train.
  • Keep the list of techniques you want to train manageable. A few at a time is great.
  • Be reasonable; start small; forgive yourself when you miss training time.
  • Remind yourself – around two weeks into your commitment it can be easy to forget. Place reminders to execute your training each day or you might miss a few days.
  • Benchmark yourself to make sure you’re improving. An easy way is to simply use some of your workout time to pull out a piece you’ve written recently in autopilot—something for work, say. Then edit for the items in your working list. Highlight each time you use a move that you’re working on. You can easily keep track of whether you’re using moves and improving this way.

Principles for Becoming a Better Writer

01. Edit for a Few Techniques at a Time 

Perhaps the most successful practice is to use your editing time to program a small set of new moves at a time. Try picking up a draft that you’ve written and edit it for only a small handful of new writing moves at a time. Mark each time that you already used the move or anytime that you should have. You are training yourself to spot these moves and wiring your brain to recognize when each move is helpful. And focusing on a small batch at a time will keep the process manageable. Once you master this small set of moves, start editing for a different set of moves. And so on.

02. Checklist Editing

Edit with a checklist and force yourself to incorporate your new moves at least a few times in each document. Don’t just passively check off boxes; force yourself to find at least five or ten examples of each move whenever you work on a project. That way, you can be sure to practice the moves, even if it’s just because you’re looking for places to use them. There are few moves that you can’t incorporate at least once or twice into a meaty legal document.

03. Ask Yourself "Why"

Develop the habit of asking why you are making the writing choices you are. This helps you get away from autopilot (at least in the editing phase). For example, ask what that word or that sentence actually does for you?

04. Pay Attention to Techniques in Good Writing

Develop a habit of noticing what moves are being used by the authors you are reading everyday — both legal and non-legal. Why did the author use that phrase? That structure? What works better for you? One of the best ways to pick up new moves is to read writing that uses them. Everyone from Stephen King to Brian Garner recommends this approach, and for good reason. There is no better way to reprogram your writing intuition. So identify some legal writers you admire, and read them voraciously. Even better, mark in the book you are reading each time you spot one of the moves you happen to be working on at the time.
Read good writing and mark down whenever you spot one of your new moves. Everyone from Stephen King to Brian Garner recommends this approach, and for good reason. There is no better way to reprogram your writing intuition. So identify some legal writers who you admire, and read them voraciously. Even better, mark in the book you are reading each time you spot one of the moves you happen to be working on at the time.

05. Keep Reminders Close By

Keep your post-it to 2-4 moves. Anything more than that and it’s too hard to remember to spot them and practice using them.  

06. Practice Regularly

Go to the writing gym: set aside some time each week (or each day) to solely hone your writing craft. Great writers practice, just like any other athlete. They look for every opportunity to write generally. And they set aside time each to work on honing their craft.

Specific Exercises for Getting Better

01. Edit Your Old Writing

Pull out a piece that you wrote in the past (preferably at least a few months old) and scrupulously edit it for 15 minutes. Focus on incorporating your running list of new moves.

02. Edit Someone Else's Writing

Pull a brief or article—doesn’t matter what it is, just something that you didn’t write—and meticulously edit it. Again, focus on incorporating your running list of new moves. But also pay attention to any new writing moves that you think are working as you read.

03. Try One Read Editing

Use one-read editing on one of your documents, or someone else’s. Just make a mark every time you have to reread a word, sentence, or paragraph. Just a few pages is enough. Now go back and try to figure out how to smooth over the bumps. How could the author have written so that the 1-read rule was met?

04. Edit for Transitions Only

Find a piece of bad legal writing (easy!) and add transitions throughout the document. Or umbrella sections. Or any other writing move that you need some practice with. By focusing on a single move for an entire edit, you get some serious results.

05. Keep a one-sentence writing journal

Journaling: try the one-sentence writing journal. Or a short-form journal. This has you write down one good sentence you found each day. Or a paragraph worth. Or a writing principle you learned. The point is to force yourself to find something writing-related, and new, to add to your journal each day. Soon you will have a compendium of excellent writing advice for yourself.

06. Use Writing Prompts

Try using a writing prompt. Here are some ideas:
  • Explain some broad or complex subject you know a lot about in 100 words.
  • Write a 100-word discussion of something that contains only active verbs.
  • Write a 100-word article using only simple sentences with four or five words each.
  • Try writing some sentences using a rhetorical structure: like appositive clusters or dependent-clause clusters. “Because courts need guidance, because litigants need guidance, because lawyers need guidance—that is why this move exists.”
  • Write an introduction for one of your favorite judicial opinions. Try to capture the persuasive points and themes even better than the judge did.
  • Explain a complicated legal doctrine that you are familiar with—without looking at any resources. The point is to write as clearly and conversationally as you can.
These are by no means the only way to go to train your skills over time. But they are a good start. Truly, if you are spending time working on discrete writing techniques—with a goal to get better—there is no going wrong. You will.
Above all, take control of this process and you will see results in no time.
Joe Regalia
Write.law co-founder Joe Regalia combines his experience as both practitioner and professor to create exciting new ways to teach legal skills.  Learn more about Joe

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