Writing Tools that Every Lawyer Needs to Have

July 2, 2018 § 7 Comments

Judge Griffis had this post on his blog last month, and I think it’s a list that both lawyers and judges can benefit from.

16 books judges should own if they want to write well

Here is a link to an article from the National Judicial College. Yes, 16 books you need to own.

By Julie Oseid and Randall Tietjen

Three conventional dictionaries:

1.  Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (10th edition) [Now in its Eleventh Edition]
2.  The Oxford English Dictionary (5th edition)
3.  The American Heritage Dictionary (6th edition) [Could not find a link to the 6th, even on Amazon; this link is to the 5th]

One legal dictionary:

4.  Black’s Law Dictionary (10th edition)

Two English usage books:

5.  Modern English Usage by H.W. Fowler
6.  Garner’s Modern English Usage

One legal usage book:

7.  Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage

Three style guides:

8.  The Chicago Manual of Style. Good advice on punctuation and style, plus handy information about copyright and fair use.
9.  The Redbook: A Manual on Legal Style by Bryan Garner
10.  Plain English for Lawyers by Richard Wydick

Beyond the reference books:

11.  Elements of Style by Strunk & White. This book has likely been on your bookshelf since college, but it is well worth revisiting with some regularity.
12.  On Writing Well by William Zinsser. This book will make you want to be a better writer.
13.  On Writing by Stephen King. Yes, that Stephen King.
14.  The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker
15.  30 Days to Better English by Norman Lewis. Good for improving your vocabulary.
16.  Typography for Lawyers by Matthew Butterick. It explains how effective communication depends on document design, including how words look on a page.

My only pushback is three dictionaries. For most of us, one good one is all you need. And I think the OED is overkill; unless you’re serious about etymology and harbor a secret ambition to be an English scholar, or unless you just want to appear scholarly and impress academics, you’d do just fine with either of the more popular dictionaries.

Speaking of dictionaries, I read Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, by Kory Stamper, a lexicographer with Webster who describes how words are selected to be included or excluded in a dictionary, as well as many other arcane facts about them (I know, I am a nerd). As she points out, Webster’s philosophy is to include words and usages as they come into the mainstream of the language (e.g., “waiting on” has become predominant in everyday language as a synonym for “awaiting” as well as “serving,” and either is proper usage) rather than the philosophy of American Heritage, which is to defend proper usage against all incursions (e.g., “waiting on” means serving, not awaiting, and it is improper to use the term in the latter sense).

I have to sympathize with Judge Griffis on at least one salient point: he sees a lot more of lawyers’ writing than I do. What comparatively little I see is sometimes unclear, rife with grammatical and usage errors, and downright unenjoyable to read, so that I just skip to the citations and read the cases.

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§ 7 Responses to Writing Tools that Every Lawyer Needs to Have

  • Bentley E Conner says:

    Ahem. (clearing my throat). Did you mean “….from which lawyers and judges might benefit.”???

    • Larry says:

      Point well taken, but there is a strong movement to do away with the Victorian rules that derive from Latin such as split infinitives and ending a sentence with a preposition. Having said that, the rule ain’t dead yet.

  • Bentley E Conner says:

    May I humbly recommend the United States Government Printing Office Style Manual. https://www.govinfo.gov/features/new-edition-gpo-style-manual.

  • Eddie Abdeen says:

    I have some of the books listed and plan on checking out those I don’t have with the exception of the dictionaries. I enjoy your blog and, despite not practicing much in chancery court, have found your body of work very helpful. Thanks for the effort. It is much appreciated!

  • Agree re: OED, though I do love my 2-vol. Shorter OED.

    It can be worth having more than one dictionary, as they may define things differently in relevant ways. Also some have different philosophies. The American Heritage Dictionary is IIRC more conservative/prescriptive than Merriam-Webster.

    Also, recent editions of Fowler can be a mixed bag. Try finding a used copy of the 2d edition (revised by Gowers), is my humble suggestion.

  • Robin White says:

    Years ago I heard a story about a time when Noah Webster’s wife walked into his library unexpectedly and caught him in a compromising position with one of her young maids. She screamed out, “Noah, I’m surprised!” He responded, “No, my dear, I’m surprised, you’re astounded.”

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