This week, we're excited to share our first guest post. Julie Schrager is an attorney and the legal writing coach at Schiff Hardin, a full-service law firm of more than 300 lawyers in seven offices. She works closely with summer associates, associates, and partners to improve their legal writing. Julie firmly believes that everyone can improve their written communication skills. Below, she shares practical tips that can help anyone feeling anxious or overwhelmed about a written assignment, regardless of industry. Thank you, Julie!
Anyone who’s been through law school or is currently in law school can relate to this situation: your legal writing professor hands out an assignment for a memo or a brief, and you face a deadline that’s three or four weeks away. The same thing happens in law practice when, for example, the court sets a schedule that has you filing a brief in a month or two.
At the moment these deadlines feel far away. But you know even as a law student or younger lawyer that legal writing takes a lot longer than any type of writing you’ve done before. And therefore you also know that you should get started now (or yesterday, or the day before that). But you can’t. Why is that?
Many people convince themselves that they don’t get started because they’re busy with other work. I think that’s part of the reason. But I also think there’s another reason. That reason is anxiety. For years, teachers have blamed students (and students have blamed themselves) for procrastinating and identified it as a bad trait.
But recently I’ve started to think that many of us postpone writing not because we don’t want to get started or because it’s more appealing to nap rather than write (of course it is) but because we can’t. We can’t get our minds settled down to a place where we can write. We call it writer’s block but maybe it’s not quite that. Maybe it’s really, “I have no idea what I’m going to say so I can’t get started.”
Or maybe it’s anxiety about whether we can produce decent-quality work. Some law students think, “Whatever I write won’t be good enough anyway because I was a bio major/I’m not as smart as everyone else here/I don’t completely understand the assignment.”
Because we worry that what we write will not be good enough, we decide there’s no point in starting. We feel anxiety about the blow to our self-esteem that will come if we actually start early, try our hardest, and still don’t produce top-quality work.
I decided to address this topic because of what I’ve heard from law students over the years. They are diligent, these first-year law students. They enter law school intending to leave behind bad undergrad habits like completing a major paper just before it is due and hitting “send” without reading it over. But often they just can’t because of the anxiety kicking in.
For this reason, I came up with a few writing “hacks” that legal writers might use to help them move forward with their written work while living with and accepting their feelings of anxiety. One caveat: these suggestions are no substitute for professional treatment, of course, but hopefully some of you can use them to make the writing process less painful.
1) Organize first – tell yourself that you’re not writing but you’re setting things up for a time when you’re ready to write. All legal writing requires organization and specifically headings. Think about the points you are making. Write out a heading for each one. When you start this way, you’ll be able to see writing as “filling in the blanks” after the headings, rather than embarking on an overwhelming task.
2) Start with easy projects so that you have an early sense of achievement. Write the facts section of your memo or brief first. Write the conclusion. Format the document. Spend some time organizing your research by issues so that writing will be an easier process—notecards (virtual or real) are still effective tools.
3) Anxiety increases when you’re tired, especially over-tired. When you aren’t sleeping, editing is hard because you worry that you won’t make the right decisions and that worry can spiral. Follow good habits that will help you sleep.
4) The most difficult part of editing is the big-picture part: thinking hard about whether your document serves the purpose it must—does it answer the questions? Does it marshal the best arguments? Is the tone right for your audience? Print out your document, and take on this task with no pen in your hand and in a peaceful and comfortable place.
5) When you start editing, trick your brain by changing the setting and the document: write in the library and edit at Starbucks. Write in Times New Roman and edit in your favorite font or by making the type bigger (if you’re my age) or smaller.
6) Employ concrete, straightforward editing tools that make the revision process a game: my current favorite – look at the subjects of your sentences. That’s everything before the verb. Make sure all of your subjects are short and concrete: the person or thing doing the acting. Another editing hack: count the words in sentences (Word will do this for you). Aim for fewer than 30 words and even shorter for complicated points. Another of my favorite games: count the words in the document as a whole and give yourself 30 minutes to cut 10-20% of them.
I want to close with one important learning concept. Remember that you aren’t your writing. Your writing does not reflect on your fundamental character or worth. Instead, it’s a teachable skill. To overcome any barriers to writing and editing effectively, you must embrace the “growth mindset” that Carol Dweck at Stanford has explained. People who have a growth mindset do not see their abilities as fixed but rather as things that they can develop with time and practice.
There is no substitute for smart practice to improve your writing and overcome any anxiety that interferes with it. Keep repeating Edgar Rice Burroughs’ line (he’s the author of the Tarzan serials and books and is one of the most prolific authors of all time). He said, “If I write one story, it might be awful but the odds are in my favor if I write 100.”