The Scots Law Student

The SLS : Life and trials of learning law in Scotland

Tag: writing

On editing

“Editing is just like writing, except hateful, and in reverse. Instead of birthing words and ideas out of nothing, you’re murdering them in cold blood, culling them like sickly sheep weakening the flock.”

Robert Brockway, Cracked.com

One of the most shocking tips I ever got for producing decent written work for uni was to spend half as long again on editing as I did on writing. Thankfully that doesn’t include research time.

Half as long again. Yup.

There are three big stages in written work: research, writing, editing. In larger pieces of work these steps are even iterative.

Editing is one of the stages that I feel has the most potential for grabbing marks from so it’s worth your time. I often found that I’d leave assignments to the last minute and, looking at deadlines and editing seems temptingly optional at that point. In my experience it’s rarely a good idea. Beyond feeling like a luxury intended for more organised people it also hurts to delete words that don’t fit. I compromise by having a clippings file where I keep bits of what I’ve written that didn’t make it in the final submission. It’s a depressingly large file.

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Book review: Typography for Lawyers – Matthew Butterick

What is the ugly truth about why typography is so important for lawyers? :

I believe that most readers are looking for reasons to stop reading… [o]nce the reader’s attention expires, you have no chance to persuade

– Matthew Butterick, Typography for Lawyers: Essential Tools for Polished and Persuasive Documents, Jones McClure Publishing

I was very kindly sent a review copy of the new legal typography book this week and I’ve really been enjoying it. I’ve written about the website which spawned this book before because it gives a useful introduction to the principles of typography, how it relates to legal writing and why it matters at all (hint – it’s important to make your writing inviting and easily readable because of that quote at the top). The book continues that mission with examples, tips and rules written by a professional typographer turned professional lawyer. Just about every section comes with point by point instructions for implementing it in Word 2003; Word 2007 and 2010; WordPerfect and Pages — a broad range of the most common word processors that you might reasonably expect someone to use. Even then, the advice is universal and you don’t even need those programs to benefit from it. Inside the front cover is a useful list of special characters along with a list of 28 key rules for quick reference. It is a very useful working handbook which is worth keeping close to your desk.

There’s always a worry in my mind that when a popular website publishes a book based on the website they will just stick two covers around what the original website said and not a word more. That’s not the case here and the author has unquestionably given value for money with his new book. There’s a lot of extra material written just for the book and it also avoids some of the limitations of a website format. There’s an inherent catch 22 in presenting typography tips on a website as, for example it’s hard to demonstrate the benefits of high-resolution print-optimised fonts on a website — after all, on page 82 you find out that a monitor has less than 3% of the resolution that a laser printer does. In a book you can immediately point out the little details (and make no mistake – each individual element is a fine detail) that are brushed out to make it easier for screen display. Suddenly “this font is better than this font” discussions make much more sense. The issues of subtlety and fine detail come up a lot – you are encouraged to adjust the size of text by 144ths of an inch at a time to see what works best. The changes are subtle, you can instantly see they’re right after you’ve done it and the worst thing is that you would never even know to do to it without being told first (use invisible “optional hyphens” to tell the computer the best place to split words between lines?). This book tells you how.

The best advice Butterick gives about typography is that it is not an exercise in artistic skill or taste but intent. The purpose of someone studying typography for legal writing is not to turn their case or essay into solid gold by changing the font but to polish it to more clearly show the merits. Studies testing marking styles show that an essay written in bad handwriting will score less than the same essay copied out in good handwriting. People like things to look good and people like things that look good. This is particularly true when people are dealing with piles of broadly similar documents. A judge or marker or supervisor or any professional reader probably does not want to read your document all that much but they have to because it’s their job. The best thing you can do for someone in that unenviable situation is to make it a) easy and b) pleasant for them. Content is king but the medium should not be forgotten.

Typography for Lawyers is on sale now for $25 which, thanks to our global village and affordable shipping, is just £16.07 in real money. Consider it recommended to anyone who writes about law because it’s a crucial element of the process explained very well.

But…

For the next edition it would be good to get some more international information. Your reader isn’t going to want to see different things from American ones so the advice travels well but the book is written from an American point of view – The Bluebook is referred to extensively along with The Chicago Manual of Style, the 7th Circuit’s style guide, the Californian Style Manual and others. In an ideal world I’d like to see about the Court of Session too.

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Book review – Writing for Law (Dave Powell and Emma Teare)

I went for a browse through my local Waterstones this evening and spotted a new release in the law section – Writing for Law (Palgrave Study Skills) by Dave Powell and Emma Teare (ISBN: 978-0-230-23644-8). It has a section on dissertation technique so I naturally snapped it up like the terrified fourth year I now am. I took it home and read the first section on the bus.

Impressions so far

Long and the short of it: I think it’s a great book. I read it with my heart in my mouth looking at all the obvious but elusive things I had not quite been doing all these years. It’s a book that all law students should read, either to teach you something or to reassure you that you’re doing it right afterall.

It covers things including

  • how to cite,
  • what sources count as authoritative,
  • study and skill guides,
  • paper and electronic references,
  • plaigraism,
  • structure,
  • planning,
  • editing
  • research,
  • how to present,
  • how to moot,
  • how to study,
  • how to sit an exam,
  • examples of marking outcomes,
  • learning outcomes (including for your entire degree),
  • identifying dissertation topics,
  • writing dissertations and extended essays.

It’s all really handy stuff and it’s the sort of thing that you really need to know to be able to be really confident about what you’re handing in. It is written from an English perspective (the authors are Senior Lecturers in Law at Teeside University) but the basic skills are immediately transferrable – you have to answer the question no matter where you are.

On the other hand this is another reason to have done a degree before doing law.

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The art of the list

Straight across the internet you will find no shortage of people who want to tell you how to write your blog. A lot of them look at it from a Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) or copywriting perspective which is fine if you like that sort of thing. It’s not the only way to write, though.

I came across this link as an advert on Digg.com. On a personal note I dislike their advertising. It’s designed to fit into the socially recommended links so it’s a wee bit like someone pretending to be your friend to sell you stuff. I think the “no one knows you’re a dog” problem is bad enough online without advertisers taking advantage of it.

The post says:

“What works best for me is to see if a post has an ordered (1, 2, 3) or bulleted (*) list; if it does, it’s probably worth reading.”

In fact, it says, writing which isn’t set out in a list is probably written by someone called Kevin. I-am-not-making-this-up. He also suggests that you should highlight the keywords using HTML formatting.

I find it a little sad. That’s not nearly all that makes a piece of writing good. All it suggests is that the writer knows their SEO principles. Good typesetting is an important thing in writing but it’s just the cherry on top.

Some kind of structure is a desperately important thing for your writing to have and picking out the “important words” in bold does mean that people can skim your writing like nobody’s business. It’s just a bit sad that this guy thinks you must put it in a list for people to read your stuff. I’m yet to see a newspaper, essay, novel, or so on that was set out as a list of bullet points with the keywords in bold despite these often being excellent pieces of writing.

You shouldn’t make your writing needlessly obscure but please don’t write for the lowest common denominator either. It hurts us all.

Typewriters III

I am now the owner of a 1972 Olympia Sg3. This is a gigantic, desk bound typewriter hailing from West Germany. It’s good for sitting at and looking at the words you have typed after the fact but feels exactly like typing in the way that anyone would today associate with a computer, with one notable exception. The backspace key exists on my typewriter but it is not the same as a backspace key on a computer – the carriage moves back one space but the letter does. NOT go away. The general way that I correct my text on this (I’m using the typewriter)is backspacing through the mistake and replacing them with hard typed x’s which serve to delete the mark and then to take a half line gap upwards and retype the particular word.

It produces text which, although completely legible, is also immutable, your notes are written exactly as typed them. My particular model won’t exceed 10pt but that is more than enough for my purposes. The real power of the typewriter, as I’m finding it, is genuinely being able to take the typed page out of the typewriter and to edit it and, then once you start to redraft to actually type the entire page out again, thereby exposing yourself to the words and arguments you’re put¬ting across without being able to cheat (as I often do) and reusing the typing of earlier versions. The fact that each draft is completely new is a useful step to forcing me to actually think about what I’m trying to submit.

It’s possibly a little hopeful to see this as a panacea as far as producing quality work but it is a tool which a) I’m going to want to use and b) one which by nature of its very construction a device that will require each draft to be thoughtfully produced, instead of simply recycled. I hope that will produce a better finished product than simply copy and pasting into different shapes.

Typewriters I

Few older technologies get quite as much notice and affection as the humble typewriter and it’s become my latest Ebay browsing fascination, that is if I can see an opportunity to pick up a cheap model I think I’m going to dip my toe in these retro waters.

Believe it or not I have thought this through, my work needs to be submitted online and if I could not use the typewriter for this I’m basically looking for a roughly 10kg desk ornament but I have a quick, effective scanner with a copy of speedy and accurate OCR software installed. Therefore, if I feed my scanner typewritten notes I can extract the text from them with no problem whatsoever and great speed. OCR would immediately choke if I made it try to read my handwriting (I’d offer to be a CAPTCHA but I’d be too effective) but if I try to make it read evenly spaced lines of typescript it will run through the documents with aplomb. This means that I get to benefit from the alleged (I have never tried it for myself) advantages of the typewriter – the distraction free writing environment – I’m really interested in this on because I’m very, very easily distracted by computers, frankly because they are my favourite toy, so I often sit down to work on real work and end up on a highly informative but irrelevant quest on Google or by a new email that’s come in – and the increased ability to draft without editing as I go along. I’ve always found it very hard to redraft my work, to be honest and I suspect that any incentive to change this would be fantastic because it’s a recognised beneficial process for writers and the extra coordination that it requires is a positive step in writing carefully and better.  I also think it might come in handy as a quick and easy way to set a typed address onto an envelop for posting.

And if all else fails? Well, maybe I am in the market for a 10kg desk ornament. I’ll keep it with me as long as I can because it’ll make me look very arty and boho and alternative and I’ll just have to learn to live with that. At the very least it’s something I can bring on holiday and use to scare the bejeezus out of the baggage scale.