Monthly Archives: December 2013

Vernacular Eloquence: What Speech Can Bring to Writing by Peter Elbow

Vernacular Eloquence coverSpeech and writing are both forms of language, but how are they different? How similar? And what can speech—off-the-cuff, spontaneous, flowing (if not cascading), and temporal—bring to writing, with its measure and rule? Mere chaos and incoherence? Not at all, answers Peter Elbow in his wide-ranging book. Speech can enhance writing if used strategically.

I was originally drawn to this book as a guide to better writing, but the book is more than that, it’s as much a reflection on language—spoken and written—as it is a guide to better writing. Indeed, the book careens from academic issues of linguistics and language and brief histories of language to specific pointers about improving your prose. While the digressions are often enlightening and entertaining, they bog the book down if you’re reading for the pearls of wisdom about writing.

Elbow’s two primary points are simple and straightforward. First, our everyday spoken language can prove quite useful in getting something down on paper that can start the journey toward a final draft. He’s a long-time proponent of freewriting, the “write first, think later” school of writing. This, of course, contradicts the “do your outline, and then a draft” standard of composition. But I think that he’s on to something. I often compose in my head well before any outline or draft. I also like his idea that sentences rather than one-word headings should be preferred for an outline. I agree that getting thoughts down on paper is the first thing you have to do to write. Of course, this means a lot of weeding later, but that’s what you have to do with your prose as well as your garden. This leads us to Elbow’s second major tip.

When revising and preparing a final draft, you should read your work aloud. Its best to read it to an audience, but even if you’re going solo, don’t just read it, perform it. Grammar and punctuation, as he points out in his background information, really seeks to replicate the intonation of the human voice in an attempt to enhance meaning and comprehension in the text. The trade-offs between written and spoken language mean that each has to mimic the other’s strengths. Writing freezes time. We can come back to a text and mull over it, hold it up for inspection as it were. On the other hand, the music of the human voice (more prosaically described as intonation) provides a richness of meaning that written language can only hope to echo. By reading aloud, Elbow argues that we will sense the flow of our prose and how easily (or not) a reader will experience it.

I think that Elbow is on to something here. I’ve haphazardly read my work aloud for some time now, but often hurriedly, more intent on copy-editing (which I do very poorly anyway) than on improving flow. Now, however, I’m resolved to read my draft aloud, if only to myself. (There’s only so much I can impose upon my long-suffering spouse.)

Elbow’s explorations into the differences between the written and spoken language, the changes in languages over time, the issues of Standard English and all that the standards of English language propriety imply are all quite interesting topics, but if you’re not as interested in these issues, it becomes distracting. However, I have a suggestion that you can pursue in lieu of Elbow’s full course meal. A short-order menu, if you will.

Several Short Sentences About Writing coverOver at Listening Like a Lawyer blog (any irony intended there?), author Jennifer Murphy Romig shares some similar thoughts in her post “Lawyers: listen to your writing” from author Vernon Klinkenborg and his recent book, A Few Short Sentences About Writing. In a few short sentences, Klinkenborg recommends that writers read their work aloud for reasons very similar to those suggested by Elbow. Think of it as an executive summary of the Elbow book.

(BTW, the Listening Like a Lawyer blog as whole, a fairly new one, has some very useful posts and I recommend it as a part of your regular feed. It’s on my RSS list.)

So if we all seem a bit daft sitting at our desks (or better yet, standing at them) reading aloud to our selves, so be it. It’s for the good of the reader—and us.

The Importance of Empathy (Lawyers Ed.)

While Oscar Wilde makes us think of the importance of being earnest in his comedy of manners, Brene Brown goes beyond earnest to the much greater challenge of being empathic. It’s not easy.

What relevance has this for lawyers? We lawyers have to work with people. If the truth be told, for all our vaunted ability to reason and write, it’s our people skills, our ability to convince by persuasion, which sets outstanding lawyers apart. And the deepest connections come through empathy. But there’s a catch: in order to act empathetically, we have to remain vulnerable, exposed. Ay, there’s the rub. For what self-respecting lawyer, especially one engaged in the slings and arrows of litigation, wants to reveal vulnerability and all that it entails?

What we often opt for instead is sympathy, which is quite different from empathy. Sympathy, according to Brown, disconnects us from the Other, while empathy draws us together with a person. Empathy is fellow feeling; sympathy is “That’s too bad. Now please take it away.” Empathy requires commitment and revelation; sympathy does not.

I can immediately think of two areas where we lawyers should practice empathy. First, with our clients. Think of the husband or wife who has to come in about a divorce, the parent of a child hauled into juvenile court, or the family that’s lost a loved one because of an act of negligence. How to we respond to them? It’s tough. Most clients want someone to serve as their champion, not a shoulder to cry upon. Yet, at least after a while, I think that they like to know that a human being and not a litigating cyborg represents them. (Corporations, however, may prefer litigating cyborgs.) For instance, if a client becomes involved in some form of litigation, the bad news won’t end soon. (Just the thought of a lawsuit is bad enough). Questions and doubts, hard decisions, fears and anxieties, all are likely to surface and require attention. The lawyer must balance empathy while not losing the professional judgment and demeanor that will merit a reasonable (but not absolute) degree of client confidence. It’s a fine line to walk.

The other arena in which lawyers can apply empathy is with our fellow practitioners. Let me ask this: Is there a more shitty feeling than having lost a jury trial that you know you should have and could have won? I have a hard time thinking of worse times, and I’ve suffered through more of these than I care to remember. (Adverse written decisions aren’t much better, but they seem just a bit less of a punch in the gut.) I’ve greatly appreciated calls from colleagues after a loss, those who’ve suffered similar fates at times in their careers. It doesn’t make it all better, but you do have a sense of a bit less loneliness in your misery, which certainly helps. Victory has a thousand fathers; defeat none. But at least you can have some who can mourn with you over your failure.

Without further ado, here’s the website for the Brene Brown piece. She’s a very engaging speaker, and I must also recommend this site to you. Brain Pickings blog, from which this post is taken (recommended reading)  provides high quality and consistent content on a number of topics that lawyers and others will find interesting.


Why Did I Go Freelance? (Or Should I Say “Rogue”?)

For those who don’t know me, you may wonder why, after 29 years of practice (in Iowa City), did I decide to leave my practice and now begin freelance lawyering? The personal answer is that my wife and I decided we wanted to do some adventuring before we became too old to have the yen to do so. We wanted more than just tourism; we wanted to experience living in a different country. Anyway, that’s the short form. This article tells why, in more abstract terms, someone like me with  an established practice would leave it and begin working freelance. In a word: Freedom. The article explains it well.


Rome & Rhetoric & Us

We lawyers are a wordy lot. As our culture changes, under the influence of movies, television, the internet, we shift more and more to a culture of images rather than of words. We lawyers may have to trim our enthusiasm for words. Yet, for now, they remain our stock-in-trade. To this extent, we have few betters guides to the persuasive use of words than Shakespeare and Classical rhetoric, especially via the mind of a master writer like Garry Wills.

In a sense, the Funeral Orations from Julius Caesar are like a trial, although not couched in that format. The jury is the crowd, and both Brutus and Antony must woo them to their judgments. Are we so different? The fiction notwithstanding, I suggest that we have some important lessons to learn here.

Rome & Rhetoric coverGarry Wills has struck again, this time with his book Rome and Rhetoric: Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. In this slender volume Wills explores how Shakespeare, via Plutarch, grasped the essence of Rome at the time of the transition from republic to empire. Specifically, Wills explores the rhetoric of the leading characters. Of course, Antony’s funeral oration is the best known of the set pieces in this play. (My continued apologies to Mrs. Vaughn for having complained about having to memorize this in sophomore English class). However, Antony’s funeral oration is not the only example of rhetoric in the play. Before Antony speaks, Brutus addressed the crowd. Wills contrasts the rhetoric of Brutus, which centers upon “mine honor”, against the more nuanced speech given by Antony. Antony responds to his audience, whereas Brutus expects his audience to respond to him.

Wills’ love of Shakespeare is not new. His previous book on Macbeth demonstrates the care with which has explicates these texts. In addition, he has recently published a book on Shakespeare and Verdi, the great Italian opera composer who composed operas on some of Shakespeare’s plays. I haven’t read that book yet, but I have a hard time imagining that it could be better than this book. Wills is trained as a classicist, and the opportunity to merge his love of theater (and Shakespeare in particular), along with his classical learning, provides us a real treat in humanistic learning.

I always enjoyed Julius Caesar (my complaints and sophomore English notwithstanding), and I think that it is an easily accessible play. In addition, there are a couple of good film productions of it that are well worth seeing, including one with Marlon Brando as Anthony. If you have an opportunity to see these productions or to read this play, Wills’ book would be an excellent introduction and perspective on the play.