Legal writing can be a struggle because we’re expected to be fast and perfect. This creates a high-pressure situation where we’re sure to doubt ourselves. Fear, perfectionism, self-doubt, and external pressure are the main psychological ingredients for writer’s block. So how can we overcome writer’s block and get that first draft on paper?
Manage Your Expectations
When you’re staring at the blank page, remember that your goal is to make progress, not to be perfect. A well-written brief or memorandum is the product of a lot of editing, but you can’t edit words that don’t exist. So get some words on paper—don’t worry about whether they’re good yet. Your first draft is merely a starting point, and it should take no more than 25% of the time you’ve allotted for this assignment.
All You Need Is a Draft
First drafts often fall short and take too much time because we treat writing like a lecture rather than a conversation. We’re so focused on cramming everything in that we lose the story and stray from the point. It may seem counterintuitive, but if you put your research away and force yourself to write from memory, you’ll find a story that flows naturally and the most relevant points become apparent. You’ll also get through your first draft faster.
The Kinder Formula
Let’s try this with the 21-Minute Method created by legal writing expert Gary Kinder. It’s proven to help lawyers quickly craft passable rough drafts.
For the method to work, you must follow the formula.
1. No Research
1. Converse – 4 Minutes
2. No Editing
2. Organize – 2 Minutes
3. No Stopping
3. Write – 15 Minutes
Rule #1 – No research while you write.
Once you’ve completed your research, put your notes and research away. Write the first draft from memory. You should have a clear grasp of the issues, facts, and law. Without notes and research to tempt you into treating minor and irrelevant issues, you’ll develop a better story.
Step #1 – Make casual conversation.
Imagine a conversation between you and another person. The last thing this person has said to you is, “Tell me about this case/deal.” Writing in a conversational manner will help you to write less and stick with a story. It may be disjointed and out of order, but that’s fine. Let it flow. As you have the conversation, write down everything you’d say. This usually takes no more than four minutes.
Rule #2 – Don’t edit the conversation.
If it comes to mind, write it down. Write every single thought. Don’t edit. Writing without pause and without editing or evaluating your work keeps you from self-criticizing. If you let your inner editor out at this stage, you’ll stall your progress.
Step #2 – Group your ideas and arrange them in order.
After four minutes of writing, you’ve probably exhausted your working memory. But don’t limit or time yourself. If you have more than four minutes worth of information to write, keep writing. Once you’re done capturing that flow of information from memory, it’s time to organize those thoughts. First, look for themes; note and group the related items. Second, arrange the groups of related items in logical order. This should take about two minutes. You now have a rough outline. At first, this method might feel weird or you might worry that your organization will suffer. If so, try reverse outlining after you’ve completed a few drafts.
Rule #3 – Keep going until you reach the end.
The 21-Minute Method works largely because of one rule: No editing allowed. You must write until you reach the end of your outline. It may be tempting to dwell on your first paragraph and tweak it until it’s perfect, but if you stop, you’ll lose your momentum. Stick with it and keep working without stopping to think or pausing to refine.
Step #3 – Bang out the first draft of your brief or memo.
With your rough outline for reference, flesh out each point. Don’t take out your research. Continue to work from memory and don’t stop. Accept that some paragraphs will develop faster than others—but don’t go back and edit. Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation, grammar, or making sense. Just get words on paper. Do this for about 15 minutes.
The Second and Third and Fourth Drafts
After working feverishly for 21 minutes, you now have something to build on. Continue to resist the temptation to perfect a single paragraph. Instead, make several passes, improving your document each time. As you do, you’ll see connections and uncover depth you hadn’t seen before.
Your second draft will take about 30 minutes. The third draft may take 45 to 60 minutes. Using this method, each draft will take longer as you look at your work more critically.
Hold off on deep editing and proofreading until you have a nearly complete document. Once you have that, set your document aside for an hour or overnight so you can see it with fresh eyes. Or ask a colleague to review it for you. When you’re close to your work, it’s hard to see errors; instead, you see what you meant to write. When you’re ready to edit, try these strategies.
Edit for Clarity and Brevity with WordRake
If you don’t have time to let a document sit or have a colleague edit for you, try WordRake. WordRake is a tireless editor: always there with fresh eyes and deep knowledge. The editing software reviews your document in seconds, hunting down useless words and dull phrases and suggesting edits in-line. Your raked document will look just like a colleague has revised your work using track changes. Then you decide which edits you like.
With the 21-Minute Method and WordRake, your writing can be fast and flawless. Try WordRake for faster, better legal editing today. Download your free trial now.
About the Author
Ivy B. Grey is the Vice President of Strategy and Business Development for WordRake. Prior to joining the team, she practiced bankruptcy law for ten years. In 2020, Ivy was recognized as an Influential Woman in Legal Tech by ILTA. She has also been recognized as a Fastcase 50 Honoree and included in the Women of Legal Tech list by the ABA Legal Technology Resource Center. Follow Ivy on Twitter @IvyBGrey or connect with her on LinkedIn.