Bryan Garner's 2023 legal writing tips
Photo of Bryan Garner by Winn Fuqua Photography.
This year, Bryan Garner gave us a legal interpretation quiz, advice for bringing brio to your written words, and musings on the blissful ignorance of bad legal writers. Here's the full wrap-up of 2023 columns by the Black's Law Dictionary's editor-in-chief.
“For some, it’s probably better to know little to nothing of English usage. They’ll be happy. Ineffectual, but happy. When teaching lawyers, one technique I use is to see whether the participants recognize good writing when they see it.”
“It’s a truism that clarity is the quintessence of good writing. But what is it? It doesn’t mean ease of appreciation by simpletons with small vocabularies; nor does it mean confining yourself to ideas that are easily grasped. Rather, clarity is the quality you achieve when you get your ideas across, however difficult they may be, so they reliably reappear in the reader’s mind. Clarity is the paramount virtue of style.”
“It’s fascinating to monitor how American courts interpret legal instruments. Do they go by the words, or do they let other considerations influence their decisions? That is to say, are they textualists or nontextualists? Regardless of how you see the merits of that issue, you might try your hand at these problems that American courts have decided since 2017.”
“As I write this column, less than 24 hours after the invention of the phrase chatbot lawyer, I’m fully aware that it will be my call, in conjunction with my staff, on whether the term merits an entry in the next edition of Black’s Law Dictionary. And here I am, in a national magazine for lawyers, actually using the term and thereby potentially helping it along. But I can assure readers that I will assess the matter as objectively as I can.”
“The contender for the distinction is John Rastell (circa 1475–1536), who is commonly credited with having written the first English law dictionary. Yet he might just deserve credit for producing the first dictionary in the English language. Though early editions are undated, the first printing is thought to have appeared in 1523.”
“My quest was for an issue-framing technique that would result in an issue statement that could be readily understood in one reading.”
Bryan A. Garner is the president of LawProse Inc., the chief editor of Black’s Law Dictionary, the author of The Winning Brief and Legal Writing in Plain English, and distinguished research professor of law at Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law.
These columns reflect the opinions of the author and not necessarily the views of the ABA Journal—or the American Bar Association.