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Charles P. Golbert
Cook County Public Guardian
(312) 603-0800
NAELA News Journal - NAELA Journal Online

Book Review

What Stephen King Can Teach Lawyers About Writing — On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

By Stephen King
Scribner, 2000, 288 pp.
Reviewed by Charles P. Golbert, Esq.

“The first draft of anything is sh*t.”

— Ernest Hemingway

What can the King of Horror teach attorneys about writing? A lot, it turns out.

Stephen King’s memoir, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, has become a widely cited text on the craft. King is the best-selling author of dozens of horror novels, including such classics as Carrie, The Shining, and Misery. Although On Writing is intended for authors of fiction, it offers wisdom for attorneys struggling to write compelling motions and briefs.

King maintains that there are two keys to becoming a good writer: You must read a lot and write a lot. He describes reading as the “creative center of a writer’s life” and explains that it doesn’t matter what you enjoy reading — you need to read like a writer by being an active reader. As you read, you must think about what makes the writing compelling and a joy to read.

Your writing will improve with practice, but King cautions that “practice will never make you perfect. Why should it? What fun would that be?”

King emphasizes the importance of using plain language. He describes using big words when small words will do as “dressing up a household pet in evening clothes.” King suggests using the first word that comes to mind as long as it is appropriate.

King hates the “timid” passive voice. He also loathes adverbs, admonishing that “the road to hell is paved with adverbs.”

Similarly, King advises, “[N]ever tell us a thing if you can show us instead.” This reminded me of one of the first appellate briefs I wrote in a child abuse case. I wrote that the mother tortured her children. The head of our appellate department told me to simply delineate what the mother did to the children and let the appellate court conclude on its own that what she did was torture.

King maintains that, in addition to telling a story, all writing should have a theme that appeals to a moral force. He explains, “[E]very book — at least every one worth reading — is about something. Your job … is to decide what something … yours is.”

Similarly, legal pleadings, in addition to advancing a theory of the case, should have a theme. Lawyers, in their trial advocacy, are adept at using both theory and theme to the best advantage. But for some reason, attorneys sometimes forget about theme, which is an invaluable advocacy tool, when they write. Just as a good novel has a story and a theme, a legal pleading — like a trial — should be a persuasive synthesis of theory and theme.

Some of the best lines in the book are about editing. My favorite: “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”

King recommends trying to cut your first draft by at least 10 percent. He attempts to delete everything that does not drive the story. In our writing, we should strive to eliminate everything that does not advance our theory, theme, and entitlement to the relief we seek. This means deleting, without mercy, all superfluous words, sentences, paragraphs, and even entire sections.

Whether you are penning a horror novel or a brief, editing is critical. Editing entails correcting grammar and spelling, removing passive voice, searching for logical weaknesses, ensuring that nothing is incoherent, and evaluating organization at the micro (sentence and paragraph) and macro (entire document) levels.

King encourages having others edit your writing. He teaches that when you hand your work over to be edited, the editor is always right. Editors will also appreciate his maxim that “to write is human, to edit is divine.”

On Writing contains anecdotes about King’s life and career, overcoming alcohol and drug addiction, and inspiration for some of his most famous works. The memoir closes with a postscript describing how King’s love of his family, and his need to write, helped him recover from life-threatening injuries after a van struck him when he was taking a walk.

When I was a new associate at a large firm some 28 years ago, a partner squirmed when I used the term “legal writing.” He explained that legal writing is simply writing and that good legal writing is simply good writing. He maintained that some lawyers are poor writers because they believe that legal writing is somehow different from other writing.

I’ve tried to follow this advice in my writing. Because good legal writing is simply good writing, the King of Horror has much to offer us attorneys.

About the Reviewer
Charles P. Golbert is the Cook County (Illinois) public guardian and former NAELA Journal editor-in-chief.