First Person POV and Attorneys

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.

*The Soul Crushing Student Essay, Scott Korb

A Note from Kurt Vonnegut

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.

and

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.