Commonplace

This page is a sort of commonplace book where I collect snippets related to writing, editing, and publishing.


On Writing

I do not believe legal writing exists. That is to say, I do not believe it exists as a separate genre of writing—alongside, for example, poetry and playwriting, children’s stories and murder mysteries. Rather, I think legal writing belongs to that large, undifferentiated, unglamorous category of writing known as nonfiction prose.

—Antonin Scalia, “Writing Well,” Scalia Speaks

What I hope to have taught (in one semester) were the prerequisites for self-improvement in writing, which are two things: (1) the realization (it came upon some of my students as an astounding revelation) that there is an immense difference between writing and good writing; and (2) the recognition that it takes time and sweat to convert the former in the latter.

—Antonin Scalia, “Writing Well,” Scalia Speaks

It is my experience that a careless, sloppy writer has a careless, sloppy mind.

—Antonin Scalia, “Writing Well,” Scalia Speaks

I once asked my father if writing was easy for him. “No,” he said. “It’s hard as hell.”

—Christopher Scalia, Scalia Speaks

The obtrusive gracelessness of legal English arises from the necessity of being unambiguous, and that is by no means the same as being readily intelligible.

—Sir Ernest Gowers, Plain Words

I have suggested certain elementary rules—“be short, be simple, be human”—for officials to follow in the duties that I have described as “explaining the law to the millions.”

—Sir Ernest Gowers, Plain Words

Lapses from what for the time being is regarded as correct irritate readers educated to notice errors, distract their attention, and so make them less likely to be affected precisely as you wish. This suggests a fourth rule to add to the three with which we finished the last chapter—“be correct.”

—Sir Ernest Gowers, Plain Words

But we ought not to forget how greatly our language has been enriched by the ebullient word-making habit of the Americans.

—Sir Ernest Gowers, Plain Words

“There is no such thing as good writing,” Justice Louis Brandeis once said. “There is only good rewriting.”

—Bryan Garner, The Elements of Legal Style

George Orwell wrote that a scrupulous writer, while writing each sentence, asks these crucial questions:

  1. What am I trying to say?
  2. What words will express it?
  3. What image or idiom will make it clearer?
  4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?
  5. Could I put it more shortly?
  6. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?

—Bryan Garner, The Redbook

On Editing

One last thing about good editing: It’s an act of friendship, not an act of hostility. Professional-level edits—the kind that would occur on the copy desks of major news magazines—make the writer look smarter.

—Bryan Garner, On Words, ABA Journal

The other day a lawyer asked me: “Isn’t one of the hardest things about editing well learning to improve the writing while not changing the writer’s voice?” I said no: When editing most lawyers’ work, I have little regard for the writer’s voice because most lawyers haven’t cultivated a discernible voice. What all legal writers should strive for is to be the voice of reason.

—Bryan Garner, On Words, ABA Journal

Editing requires different skills from writing. As an editor, even of your own work, you become a critic, distancing yourself from what you’ve written.

—Bryan Garner, The Elements of Legal Style

Publishing a book worth reading begins with an author placing his or her draft manuscript into the capable hands of a skilled editor who works with the author to shape, organize, correct, and clearly present the author’s thoughts and expertise relatives to the subject matter and its intended audience.

—Tatia Gordon-Troy, Self-Publishing Takes More Than One Self (Attorney at Work)

On Publishing

There is no quick and cheap route to self-publishing a quality piece of work.

—Tatia Gordon-Troy, Self-Publishing Takes More Than One Self (Attorney at Work)

There’s nothing worse than a self-published book that looks and reads like a self-published book.

—Tatia Gordon-Troy, Go the Self-Publishing Route or Stick with Traditional Publishers? The Pros and Cons (Attorney at Work)