The Daily Habit of Writing Poorly

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Lawyers are great writers, right? I mean, we do it every day. We must be good at it by now.

Except, the truth is a little more complicated. Many lawyers don’t practice in an area that requires frequent writing. Still, when we do need to write for a court or client, everyone expects our writing to be top notch. Is that even possible?

To sort out how an infrequent legal writer can improve her craft, I asked Vanderbilt Law professor Cat Moon. She recommends that you get in the daily habit of writing poorly.

Daily Habits of Writers

As we have often done in this series, Cat quickly referenced the class of writers we all admire:

If you look at any great writer and dig into how they write, most will reveal that they have a daily writing habit.

Indeed, Stephen King told George R.R. Martin that he tries to get in six pages a day; John Steinbeck advised that you lose track of the 400-page book and write just one page a day; and Alice Munro also admitted to having a daily quota of completed pages.

In every case, the writer produces, no matter the distractions or how poor the writing seems. As E.B. White said, “A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”

And Henry Miller may have put it best:

When you can’t create, you can work.

This focus on work over inspiration is the definition of professionalism, an idea that author Steven Pressfield has explored in his books on writing.

Turning Pro

Steven Pressfield published his original book on writing, The War of Art, nearly twenty years ago. He had already released both The Legend of Bagger Vance and Gates of Fire, two books that solidified his writing career. But the effort he describes in The War of Art is hardly the freewheeling creativity you might expect of the artist. Instead, Pressfield describes work. Lots of it.

In outlining a writer’s day, Pressfield says this:

I am keenly aware of the Principle of Priority, which states (a) you must know the difference between what is urgent and what is important, and (b) you must do what’s important first. What’s important is the work.

Pressfield describes the many stumbling blocks that get in the way of our work – distraction, insecurity, procrastination – as the Resistance. And he draws a distinction between amateurs and professionals based on how they deal with that Resistance. The difference, he declares, is in daily work habits.

Turning pro is like kicking a drug habit or stopping drinking. It’s a decision to which we must re-commit every day. Twelve-step programs say “One Day at a Time.” The professional says the same thing.

Even when your writing is not pristine, you can do the work of a professional. The professional works every day, no matter the needs of the world.

To put a finer point on it, being a professional means writing when the world doesn’t make you write, when you don’t have a case that requires it, or when distractions pull you away from your desk. Professionals write.

If you are waiting for a project to force you in front of the keyboard, you are an amateur. Only your habits will change that.

Making the Change

If you want to turn pro – to turn your writing interest into a daily habit – Cat Moon recommends that you look to the fruits of your efforts for justification.

From my own experience, writing daily has been an incredible creative outlet. I can keep those creative juices flowing rather than see them stifled by the normal practice of law.

For Cat, creativity is an end unto itself. It’s something she wants in her life and a daily writing habit helps her find it. But she also knows there are professional gains to be had:

You only get better at something by doing it. Often that means doing something poorly for a long time. I don’t know that I ascribe to the 10,000 hour rule to become an expert in something, but you most certainly improve by doing it, right?

Cat also gave some simple tips for making daily writing an easier task:

I think it’s awesome to just say I’m going to spend the first 30 minutes of every day writing. Do a morning pages exercise, journal… carry a notebook around with you. If you’re early to an appointment, you can sit and write. It’s the easiest thing to fit into a schedule, even if you think you have no time.

Start Here

Ultimately, the secret to going pro with your writing is to make it a purposeful part of your day.

Simply schedule time on your calendar. Just 30 minutes, three times a week. Whatever works. It’s an appointment with yourself. That’s how you handle getting really anything done. It’s fundamental to creating a proactive versus reactive way of working. And I frankly think it’s our professional responsibility to hone our writing craft, but it’s also incredibly rewarding.

I would echo Cat’s suggestion that you become a professional by scheduling a daily writing habit. It’s so easy to avoid that work when our cases don’t require it. Still, if we wait until we need our writing skills, they will fail us.

If you start small and stick to a schedule, you will see gains both in your work abilities and in your creativity. Your clients and judges will thank you for that.

Want to Learn More about Writing Well?

To see the entire interview with Cat, check out the video below…

And take a look at the other articles in this series on better writing for lawyers. We’re happy to support the development of good writing habits and would love a chance to explain how you can incorporate Casetext’s AI-enabled research tools to enhance your skills.

Please take a moment to schedule a demo of Casetext’s research tools, and take advantage of our free trial. As you’ll see, we aim to help good lawyers like you improve their craft.