Bryan Garner on Words

Writing vs. Good Writing: Make the languorous doldrums of reading disappear

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Bryan Garner

Illustration by Sam Ward

When Thomas Mann said that a writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people, what do you suppose he meant? That’s our subject this month.

“All styles are good,” Voltaire said, “except that which bores.” The good writer, in other words, frets a little about piquing the reader’s interest sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph—never descending into unremittingly dull stretches. The French even have a word for those dull stretches: longueurs.

The good writer, I say, because pedestrian, workaday writers couldn’t care less. They assume, falsely, that they have a captive audience when in fact there’s no such thing. All readers, even paid readers, rebel with little provocation: As soon as it gets dull, they allow their minds to wander or simply stop reading. They quit.

In law, of course, this happens all the time. Most expository prose in law is pretty darned dreary. Lawyers come to think of on-the-job reading as a tedious, soporific part of the job. When we occasionally encounter something well-written, our attention immediately perks up: The languorous doldrums of reading suddenly disappear for the time it takes to read good writing.

We instantly realize, if only subliminally, that there’s an immense difference between writing and good writing. When that realization rises to the level of consciousness, it becomes, in the words of the late Justice Antonin Scalia, an “astounding revelation.” He said he saw his University of Virginia students undergo this epiphany when he was in charge of a legal writing course. Each term, he impressed upon his students that it takes time and sweat to convert writing into good writing.


Consider an example:

Writing: Plaintiff merely takes two paragraphs out of context from the Swartz publication #2348, which is the manual dealing with career opportunities.

Good writing: Dampf merely plucks two isolated paragraphs from Swartz’s career-opportunities manual.

What are the differences? (1) The character in this story has a drab legal label in the first version but is actually named in the second. Nothing helps a story connect with readers more than using the parties’ names. (2) The first version prominently mentions #2348, which is boring and unnecessary; the second just says what it is—and does so economically in four words instead of 11. (3) The phrasal verb in the first version is nondescript (takes out of context); in the second, the verb is a vivid metaphor (plucks). (4) The first version is encumbered with a long subordinate clause that de-emphasizes crucial information; the second version, direct and straight-shooting, puts all the information in one tight independent clause.

Also, the first version takes 21 words, the second just 11. Multiply both versions by 667, and you have a full-length appellate brief written in the one style or the other. That’s an oversimplification, you say? Perhaps a little, but the point holds: Reading 14,000 words in the original style is sheer tedium; reading 7,300 words in the second style is rather enjoyable.

The distinction between writing and good writing holds in every realm of expository prose—and either type becomes a matter of habit. Even something as mundane as a letter between relatives, about a debt that one has incurred to the other, can be elevated to artistry in the hands of a good writer. Take, for example, this classic letter written by the critic Alexander Woollcott (1887–1943) to his niece Joan Woollcott Jennings in 1940:

Alexander Woolcott portrait

Alexander Woolcott: “Let us dispose, for the time being, of your debt to me, which, properly enough, is more on your mind than on mine.” Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Dear Mrs. J.:

I hope that you like your marriage and that I, when our paths cross, shall like your husband.

Let us dispose, for the time being, of your debt to me, which, properly enough, is more on your mind than on mine. I should like to have you pay it back under one of two circumstances: (a) that you do it when, if ever, money is flowing freely in your direction and you can make the repayment without a wrench, or (b) that I myself am in difficulties, in which case I should let out a squawk. If, as seems not unlikely, I should be gathered unto my fathers before either of these contingencies arises, I hope you will regard it as a bequest to you. And if there is any order in your life I wish you would file this letter away as evidence of these testamentary intentions. To this contingent request there is attached not a condition but a suggestion. If I should hurry to my grave before you settle our account, I think you might keep it in mind that I would like to have you make your repayment take the form of putting some other youngster through college someday.



Why is that letter good? What makes any letter good, for that matter? In Woollcott’s letter, we see a combination of excellent ideas and excellent phrasing. Noble sentiments, never sappy, permeate the letter. And the technique of phrasing is mostly a matter of refined word choice, polished syntax and variety. Woollcott used appealing, slightly offbeat wordings in almost every sentence: dispose (with its double lay sense and legal sense), wrench, squawk, gathered unto my fathers, if there is any order in your life and hurry to my grave. As for syntax, he begins with a compound sentence of coordinate clauses followed by a series of sentences using both main clauses and subordinate clauses—all well-arranged. The one exception to that pattern in the second paragraph is the sentence that begins with an arresting inversion: To this contingent request ... .

The writing is a series of pleasant surprises, both in language and in content. The style and the content reinforce each other. Whenever you’re enjoying a piece of writing, start noticing how often the reason lies in pleasant surprises.

Of course, there are as many tones in writing as there are in utterance. Most legal writers should aspire to sound like the voice of reason—and even that can (and should) be achieved with a piquant vocabulary and a varied syntax.

But since I’ve invoked Woollcott, let’s look at another letter he penned with a very different tone. Here he’s in high dudgeon—or a self-mocking version of it. He’s writing to the lyricist Ira Gershwin (1896–1983), who has defended his use of disinterested to mean “bored” as opposed to “impartial”:

Ira Gershwin:

Listen, you contumacious rat, don’t throw your dreary tomes at me. I’ll give you an elegant dinner at a restaurant of your own choosing and sing to you between courses if you can produce one writer or speaker, with an ear for the English language that you genuinely respect, who uses disinterested in the sense you are now trying to bolster up. I did look it up in my own vast Oxford dictionary a few years ago only to be told that it had been obsolete since the 17th century. I haven’t looked up the indices in your letter because, after all, my own word in such matters is final. Indeed, current use of the word in the 17th-century sense is a ghetto barbarism I had previously thought confined to the vocabularies of Ben Hecht and Jed Harris. Surely, my child, you must see that if disinterested is, in our time, intended to convey a special shade of the word “unselfish” it is a clumsy business to try to make it also serve another meaning. That would be like the nitwit who uses a razor to sharpen a pencil. The point of the pencil may emerge, but the razor is never good again for its particular purpose.

Hoping you fry in hell, I remain

Yours affectionately,


If the style had been less extreme, the letter would not only become less funny but its self-mockery would become more questionable—and the letter might actually seem more hostile. One thing is certain: Woollcott was comfortable with the sound of his own voice.

All good writers come to be that way. Even so, it takes time and sweat because they have high expectations of themselves.

Bryan A. Garner, the president of Dallas-based LawProse Inc., is the author, most recently, of Nino and Me: My Unusual Friendship with Justice Antonin Scalia. Follow on Twitter @bryanagarner.

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