It seems counter-intuitive at first. Legal writing and fiction writing are two very different animals, and I’ve heard a number of literary agents and editors say they groan whenever they get a query from someone who identifies him- or herself as an attorney, because attorneys (with a few exceptions) write fiction like they write legal briefs–organized, logical, dry, and boring. However, I truly believe that being a lawyer has made me a better fiction writer, and I think there are certain lessons all writers can take from the legal world. You can thank me later for saving you the law school tuition.
1. Be ruthless.
Not in a Shark kind of way. When writing legal briefs, you have to be ruthless with your editing, because there are hard page limits, and when you have a complex legal argument, ten double-spaced pages is a tight squeeze. Usually a judge won’t accept a brief if it’s even a line over. You learn to eliminate most instances of the word that and all adverbs. You learn three adjectives are not better than one. You learn to rephrase things so there are fewer words (e.g. using the active voice instead of the passive voice or using verbs instead of noun phrases with nominalized verbs). I don’t fear the red pen anymore when I’m editing my fiction writing, and it’s led to much tighter, more compelling prose.
2. Choose your words wisely.
Mark Twain had it right when he said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” People make jokes, but when Bill Clinton argued over the definition of the word is, it wasn’t all that absurd. Remember, he was a lawyer. I had an argument with another lawyer once over the definition of the word truth, and any attorney will tell you there’s a huge difference between should and shall. Writing fiction isn’t all that different. When talking about someone walking down the street, it makes a difference whether they’re “strolling,” “marching,” “sauntering,” “trudging,” or “slouching.” The same goes for describing a woman as “skinny,” “thin,” “slender,” or “svelte.”
3. Know your audience.
When you’re writing a legal brief meant for a judge, you’re going to use a different tone and language than if you’re writing a letter to a non-lawyer client or to opposing counsel. When writing fiction, you also have to keep your audience in mind. Are your writing for adults, teenagers, preteens? Are you writing primarily for men or for women? If you’re writing novel-length prose, what shelf in the bookstore would your book go on? Agents and publishers especially are going to want to know the answer to that last question, and sometimes the categories can be very specific. Up until about a week ago, I didn’t even know there was a category called “literary horror,” but my novel The Brides fits it perfectly. If you’re writing shorter fiction, what magazines or anthologies specialize in the type of story you’re writing? Again, it can be very specific, and knowing will give you story a much better chance of being accepted.
4. Characters create conflict.
Conflict is of course integral to litigation. The parties on either side have opposing or outright mutually exclusive goals, but very rarely is either side truly evil (sometimes petty, passive-aggressive, or unprofessional, but rarely evil). Remembering to give your antagonist desires, goals, and motivations just as realistic as your protagonist, and having those clashing goals form the basis of the plot, is the key to creating a compelling story.
5. Be confident in your writing.
Nothing predicts a losing case like a halfway argued legal motion. A judge knows when he or she reads a brief full of hedging phrases like, “somewhat” or, “It is our belief that…” the lawyer who wrote it doesn’t have much faith in winning. You have to argue with conviction, even if deep down you think the other side is right. Fiction writing is not for the faint-of-heart. When you write, you have to be willing to do bad things to your characters. You have to be willing to let your protagonists be less than perfect. Sometimes you have to be willing to listen to your characters and let them take the story in a direction you hadn’t intended. When you let others read what you’ve written, you have to be ready for criticism and rejection, and when it happens, you have to be willing to learn from it, pick yourself up, and keep moving forward.
There you have it. I’m not saying doing these things will make you the next John Grisham, but they made me a better fiction writer, and they’ll work for a lot of others, too. Trust me. I’m a lawyer.