February. No football, no baseball, my school’s basketball team is almost exactly average, my professional basketball team is led by a flat-earther with the heart of an amoeba, there’s not a must see movie on the horizon, the hockey season doesn’t really start until the Stanley Cup playoffs, and I’m heartily sick of running in shorts one glorious Thursday and cowering indoors the next when it’s zero in the sun.
So, February, when thoughts turn toward writing.
If you missed it – or never heard of it for that matter – I highly recommend HBO’s Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists. Even if you didn’t read Breslin’s Can’t Anyone Here Play This Game in junior high, or flip open Pete Hamill’s column on the train on the way to Con Law, it’ll hit home. If for nothing else than a history lesson on the origin of ‘fake news.’ (Hint: it wasn’t the guy planning a big July 4th). Anyway, it’s pretty much a primer on how to write – under pressure, while trying to find a hook because everyone else is writing about the exact same thing at the exact same time.
This is the place where you say, “Huh, not unlike every family law firm in my state writing about [your state’s statute number for custody goes here].
Jimmy Breslin was one of the hundreds and hundreds of reporters assigned to cover JFK’s funeral in 1963. How do you find something different to write about a funeral that everyone else is attending? Breslin left D.C. and trekked over to Arlington National Cemetery to interview the African-American man digging JFK’s grave. The result was, of course, one of the great pieces of American journalism.
About halfway through there’s also a great piece of writing advice. Tom Wolfe described how he joined the New York World Herald Tribune in the early and was given free rein to ‘write like Jimmy.’ A bit confused, and a lot intimidated, he went to his editor one day and asked, “Okay, so how long should my column be?”
The answer, “Well, of course, you write until it’s boring.”
Over the last few months I’ve come to the conclusion lawyers are not exactly trained to write in the first person. And because they’re not trained in it, they’re not exactly chomping at the bit to give it a try.
Which I think is not only a problem but (very much) a missed opportunity.
I’ve came to the conclusion because clients have told me exactly that. I talked about this with a client just before Christmas. Okay, I said something about writing a first person book and the reaction that elicited from some clients and she said, “Geez, Roland, don’t you know by now that lawyers can write, but they don’t know how to write.”
It was all in the inflections but I got her meaning. Soon after, I ran across an article in The New York Times* by the freshman writing teacher at the New School. It was all about ‘I‘.
When he starts his [mandatory] class every fall he can’t get anyone to use ‘I’. “Getting them to admit to feeling devoted or frustrated, to being peculiar in any way (much less in a large way) verges on impossible,” he writes.
I would add excited, enthusiastic, determined, and a few more and would feel comfortable that I had a decent database of attorney-specific emotions that attorneys are loathe to admit having.
Which is somewhat a hindrance when one of our ‘magic statements’ is making lawyers human one client at a time.
The writing instructor starts to cure his problem by reading some great works written in the first person to his classes. Bits and pieces, I’m assuming, from Robinson Crusoe (the first novel to do it, I believe) to Moby Dick, Great Expectations, Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, To Kill a Mockingbird, to The Hunger Games.
It takes awhile, he says, but eventually, every semester, someone raises a hand and says, with wonder, “Do you mean we can write with the word ‘I’?
I think (this shouldn’t be a surprise to any of our clients) writing blog posts, Facebook captions, Tweets, LinkedIn comments in the first person is, well, vital – if you’re trying to show the world you’re avregular human being, maybe even an interesting one.
First person is direct, honest, reveling, and a whole lot of other pretty neat things along with the added benefit of not having to be omnipotent. Also, it says something that first person non-fiction works easily outsell third person – it’s as if readers want in to what the writer is thinking and feeling.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote a long article with a client for a magazine. He asked me about a phrase I used early in the piece, and wondered if it wasn’t just a tad too specific? As in, aimed at one or three people at, perhaps, the exclusion of the other, oh, thousands of readers.
It was. We were writing about something that has a lot of lawyer-skeptics (you all know the type), though the majority have bought in, if not somewhat warily.
I wrote a paragraph specifically to grab the skeptics for at least a few more paragraphs, those who were already on board, I figured, would stick around no matter what.
This isn’t new, though I’d love to take credit for it as a writing strategy. I got it from Kurt Vonnegut.
A long while back Vonnegut published his ten rules for writing a short story. Not novels, but short stories, of which he was, of course, a master. Most of the rules are about character and plot, so they really don’t help all that much with blogs, particularly legal blogging, no matter how inventive we try to be.
Two of the rules, though, absolutely apply and should be stringently applied to all ‘lawyerly’ writing in my humble opinion, and we will always strive for this:
Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
This goes to our ‘stomp out writing to federal law clerks in our lifetimes’ mantra.
Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
I promise this has some relevance to the rest of the piece, though I won’t vouch for exactly how much. Way back in 1976, Dustin Hoffman prepared for his iconic “is it safe” scene in Marathon Man with Laurence Olivier by staying up for 72 hours. Apparently, Hoffman looked like hell on the set – unshaven, shaky, dozing off – so much so that Sir Laurence not only noticed, he felt compelled to ask Dustin what was up.
Hoffman explained his theory of method acting to one of the greatest actors who ever lived. Who listened politely, nodded, paused for a moment, and said, “My dear boy, why don’t you just try acting?”
Which brings me to my topic.
So, this happened over the last ten days. I got an email from a client asking for some help with ‘new pages’ for her web site. The people running her site suddenly saw a desperate need to ‘optimize’ a separate page for each of her services. They sent along nine pages of SEO ‘gold’ to drive her to the top of the search rankings.
The only problem was that the content was unreadable. Seriously. It completely belied the intelligence, wit, and fun easily found across her social media. She knew it, asked me to edit the pages. I did, it wasn’t fun, it was like trying to breath life into a Cuisinart manual.
But, we got it done, returned it … and the web people tore it back down into some tidy, nonsensical key words with a few adjectives and un-associated verbs tossed here and there to give the appearance of recognizable speech. Or, so I’m told, I was spared the sight of it – my client fired the web people.
I barely had time to launch into my well practiced, “I get this SEO thing, I really do … but I also know that every lawyer’s web person is using the same SEO strategies … which really means using the same words, over and over again .. and even if you magically soar to the top of the charts, crappy writing inspires no one and …. (it gets worse)” rant when a client texted.
Actually, he texted about four times while I was finishing a run on the side of a text-free mountain. “Where are you, man?” was the last one. I was reading it when the phone rang. ‘Ah,’ I thought, ‘my first blogging emergency.’
It was no emergency, but it was urgent. A very well known reporter for the Washington Post had just left a message for him – turns out she had been following him on Facebook since February. She wanted to talk, he wanted to run a few things by me first.
We talked, I drove home, he called me back a hour later – long story short, she’d like to check in with him on stories, he can call her with things he thinks may be newsworthy. I told him, we’ll find something. Soon.
The thing is, my client’s Facebook page – with blog postings, of course, and quick videos – is a non-SEO glimpse into the soul of his firm. Really. Everything we post is a mini-story. Articles with captions that mean something. Put them all together over a few months and they tell a bigger story. That’s something that SEO can’t do.
So, to the SEO folks: “My dear boy, why don’t you just try writing?”
Which brings me to part two. The writing. People out there in Internet-land are using ‘readability’ scales to produce web content that will produce … well, whatever it is they think will happen through the magic of Google’s algorithms.
I briefly (very briefly) had a client last year who demanded that I conform to the Yoast (I think it was Yoast, I have tried to sear the experience from my mind) SEO Readability scale.
The readability scale is just what it sounds like – you type, it rates the content and, supposedly, tells you when it’s readable. It looks like this:
This is it evaluating Jack and Jill. As in ‘Jack and Jill go up the hill.’ Mother Goose doesn’t quite make it, she gets a yellow light. Which is somewhat frightening, if you think about it.
No matter what I did, no matter what style I adapted, no matter how much I dumbed down content, no matter how simple I wrote, I could not get a green light. Which the client insisted on.
I thought it was stupid and knew I couldn’t be anyway nearly as creative as I’m supposed to be while worrying about a readability and a SEO green light on a single post.
So, I gracefully resigned. But, the damned readability thing kept bothering me. I’m not only confident that I write well, I’m confident that I write well in a variety of styles. I’ve won a Bob Dylan songwriting contest (“Cut myself shaving last night, there wasn’t any toilet paper in sight, gave me quite a fright…..”); an ‘imitate Hemingway ‘competition (Yes. I know. It’s easy in all the right places); have nailed Raymond Chandler in a legal brief; can do stream of consciousness unconsciously.
But, I couldn’t pull down the coveted Yoast Readibilty Green Light.
Which got me thinking, ‘Who could?’
Who indeed? I went back to the damnable rating system and began to check out some of my favorite authors … of all time. Here’s how they did:
Our newest Nobel Laureate flunks. Bob Dylan has all kinds of problems.
Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises … not so great. Apparently.
Somehow Alice in Wonderland getting a red light fits, at least down the rabbit hole.
Charles Dickens, with one of the worst ratings. (Tale of Two Cities).
It breaks my heart that Huck Finn gets a yellow.
Is it me or does Stephen King’s red light seem redder than the others?
William Butler Yeats gets very close to scoring the terrible beauty of green.
Yoast treats Moby Dick the same way readers in the 1850’s did.
Whoa, a green light! Who scored it? Thomas Pynchon, the famously dense, complex novelist who frequently invents words. I used a couple of paragraphs from Gravity’s Rainbow. That is well-known as the book with the greatest opening line (A screaming comes across the sky) that no one has finished.
My spiel about optimizing content and programs rating the readability of pieces ends with the revelation that the writer Yoast thinks is the easiest to read is in fact the densest living writer in print.
I can only hope that the technology for self-driving cars is a whole lot better than this crap. ‘Cause that could get really messy.