A Touch of Class

“Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or your self-confidence.” – Robert Frost

Having been writing for most of my life when you count stories, and essays for school, extra writing for mom and dad to keep me from getting bored, I was a wee bit dismayed that I couldn’t get out of a writing class in grad school. Writing for Lawyers was the title. The irksome thought of sitting through a beginner’s pass-fail course made me twitch. It wasn’t even creative writing (little did I know).

It was almost (but not quite) as gooseflesh-raising as Accounting for Lawyers, which was required for those without a business or accounting background. Apparently high school Algebra, Geometry, and Trigonometry, and a college class in Logic (taken to avoid the dreaded Calculus…shudder) doesn’t count as an accounting background. Who knew? But, as it takes some amount of pounding with a hammer to get mathematical concepts to stick in my brain, Accounting for Lawyers beat Writing for Lawyers hands down for the ‘why do I have to take this stupid class’ factor.

Quick digression – thanks to the accounting class, I can now understand a financial statement, balance my checkbook, pay the bills, track book sales, and look at a bookkeeping spreadsheet without running from the room in gibbering horror… I could not do my job either as an analyst or an author if I hadn’t learned those things, so thank you to the person that made it a requirement to pass. If you avoided math like the plague as I did, I highly recommend taking a quick and dirty Accounting 101 course before you set out upon the road to authordom. It will save your bacon…and let’s face it…bacon deserves to be saved.

Back to the Writing for Lawyers…To be fair, writing for the legal profession is a special form of writing, one that is expected in the great halls of marble where I had once hoped to change the world (huzzah for the fact that I had the sense not to pass the Bar Exam…I would have been absolutely miserable based on my Strengths). But all in all, I walked into that class forcing myself to look for the pony amidst all the poop, and telling myself that there must be a reason that there was no way out of the class for anyone seeking to pass first year.

I’d like to tell you it was the best class I ever took, but I’d be lying. It was a real struggle for me. Legal writing is extremely formulaic. Everything must be done a certain way down to the line number the text starts on, and when the professor straight up told us to start a paragraph with ‘the issue is…’ or ‘the rule is…’ I boiled inside. Surely a judge would be able to tell from my well-crafted paragraph that the issue was XYZ instead of waving it in his face as if he were a kindergartener… “The issue is… Feh…” I thought. “Lazy writing…” But, fortunately by then, I was smart enough to know that, when the teacher says to start a paragraph with ‘the issue is…’, you start the paragraph that way if you want to pass the class.

But as much as I fumed and grumped, I learned two very important lessons in that class: let it go, and be consistent. First. If I am working for someone….if my writing is my job…issue papers, briefs, articles, what have you, then as soon as that writing leaves my hands, it is no longer mine. I’m not saying that in a credit or a copyright sense. I’m saying that in a ‘my writing is representing my organization’ sense, and therefore, the object is to make it the best that it can possibly be. That means if there is a company format, I use it. If a reviewer wants changes before a document is sent out, I make them.

I’ve been through sessions where I’ve written a paper, sent it for review, and had the reviewer want to change it to something that was not correct (at least in my mind), thereby making the conclusion less supportable. I’ve had reviewers request a complete rewrite and then on second review want me to change everything back, and say ‘why did you change it? The first version was better.’ When I first started, that really ate at me and hurt.

But a very good supervisor (who was also good at understanding smart, indignant, and occasionally socially-inept writers like myself) sat down with me to work out why these things made me grumpy. He helped me to understand that the criticism doesn’t matter. Once it leaves your desk, let the puppy go, and when it comes back for changes, put ego aside and look at those changes with unbiased eyes.

As writers, we treat words as our babies, our creations, our blood, sweat and tears. And what father or mother takes it lightly when you call out that the baby’s ugly? With my supervisor’s help, I learned that, 99% of the time, the comments, no matter how spitefully they might be written, are not personal, so I don’t take them that way (‘Struth, occasionally I still bristle, whack things with my foam replica of Mjolnir, or go for a walk and a cry…hard not to if the reviewer is downright set on using a poisoned red pen, but generally I suck it up, play happy music until I can deal with it, and then move forward).

That’s not to say that if changes come back to me adding something completely ungrammatical or unintelligible, that I don’t open a dialog with my reviewer (in a non-threatening, non-‘I’m right and you suck’ sort of way) to explain why I wrote it the way I did as a subject matter expert, and why I think the original makes more sense than the change. I will do that, but many times I’ve found that the ‘error’ that I see is only a small part of a bigger picture, and that the change I twigged on actually makes sense once all the facts are visible.

So now, I’ll point out the dangers “Yo. Look. Pit with spikes. Here are the issues I see with what you’re asking me to change.” And ask “Do you have a way over the spiked pit? Liana Vine? Bamboo Ladder? Rocket Pack?” And if the reviewer says ‘yes’, I let it go (but keep a record that I brought the issue up…born at night, but not last night, don’tcha know…), make the changes, and move on to the next project without looking back.

The second thing I learned in Writing for Lawyers was to be consistent in viewpoint. I had always thought myself pretty consistent. See the chink in the armor there? I’m guessing that by now, you all have a pretty good idea how strong minded I am (some might even say stubborn, mule-headed, or self-righteous…). If I’ve formed a belief on something through my experience, I stick to it and defend it with sword and shield…and laser…and Archimedean Death Ray… Until that one assignment…

The assignment for the week was to either recommend or oppose three pieces of pending legislation to the governor of a fake state so that he could decide whether or not to sign the bills: mandatory wearing of motorcycle helmets, mandatory life jackets on the water, and banning smoking in the state. No problem, I thought. I wouldn’t even have to start a paragraph with ‘the issue is…’, and even better, I was already pretty good at persuasive writing after high school and college. Off we go then.

I was raised to be pretty self-sufficient and really and truly dislike anybody thinking I need a nanny to tell me what to do, what to think, or what to eat (do not get me started on the food police). So of course I recommended not signing the motorcycle helmet or the life jacket rules. A person has free will and free choice, and as long as what he’s doing is not hurting another person, let him do it. If a person is stupid enough to go bombing around on a motorcycle or a speedboat without protective gear, it’s his choice, followed by his consequences if something goes wrong. It’s a privilege coupled with a responsibility. Easy peasy.

However, I am allergic to smoke. Every New Year’s Eve as a kid I would be stuck in the house on my knees looking over the back of the recliner out the living room window at all the other neighborhood families having fun with the fireworks. Mom was a chain smoker, and in my early years, the place next door was what we called back then a Pakalolo House. I suppose nowadays it would be called a ‘medical marijuana grower’. Neither of those facts helped my situation.

I get awful nose bleeds around smoke. When I worked in the mall, our store was next to a smoke shop (the only legal place to smoke in the mall, so employees and customers alike would go in there for a break). The number of dress shirts I lost and customers I scared when the vents couldn’t handle the smoke next door and my nose would just dump blood down my front does not bear thinking about. All of this colored my argument for signing the smoking ban.

The teacher returned my paper for a rewrite. Not because of bad grammar or spelling errors. Her comments were much sharper when we had our one on one about the paper. “How can you write such an excellent and passionate argument about free will and the right of every human to choose a destiny and govern himself and then turn tail and recommend a ban on free will just because you personally don’t like an activity?”

I opened my mouth to argue and immediately closed it again. Light bulb. She was 100% right. I can be trained. I went back and rewrote the paper to have the third recommendation be consistent with my first two. Of course, being me, I also added a piece of proposed legislation to allow the free choice to smoke without hurting others by addressing the issue of second hand smoke through the use of smokers’ hazmat suits… Not quite realistic, but at least I addressed the concerns of both sides of the argument.

Both of these lessons translate into fiction writing. Listen to editors and critics. Take the nuggets of truth in their suggestions and make your work the best it can possibly be. And be consistent in word, deed, and world. I can’t have an enemy smart enough to set up a cunning plan for world domination replete with elaborate maze to torment two secret agents and then be stupid enough to not take their weapons when he has dinner with them. Trust me…that ends badly…

No, Writing for Lawyers may not have been my favorite course, but I did learn a lot from that Touch of Class.

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