I am always looking for resources to help me write better. Here’s an interesting twist: study the writing skills of five great Presidents and adapt those lessons to modern legal writing.
In her book “Communicators in Chief: Lessons in Persuasion from Five Eloquent American Presidents,” Law Professor Julie Oseid examines the writing habits and styles of Jefferson, Madison, Lincoln, Grant, and Theodore Roosevelt and extracts useful tips for lawyers looking to improve their writing.
Presidential Writing Styles
Jefferson, according to Osied, was a master of metaphor. As an example, his “wall of separation between church and state” metaphor has become embedded in our national identity. Metaphors are a way to communicate complex or abstract information so that it is understandable and accessible. Metaphors are also memorable and interesting and if well done, powerful tools of persuasion. Check out as a primer “The Tall Lady with The Iceberg: The Power of Metaphors to Sell, Persuade, & Explain Anything to Anyone” by Anne Miller.
Madison’s strength, according to Oseid, was the rigor of his writing. This rigor derived from his thorough research, preparation and the elegance of his reasoning. While not a lawyer, Madison thought like one, and persuaded colleagues through clean and well researched arguments. Like his friend Thomas Jefferson, Madison was schooled in the classics and relied on classical rhetoric to develop his arguments. We should emulate his rigor and strive to be “the most prepared lawyer in the courtroom.”
Lincoln was a model of brevity. His skill was the ability to pare away the inessential and convey the essence of his message simply and lyrically. (Think “Gettysburg Address.”) This skill was probably refined in his law practice, which required him to thematically find the essence cases he tried. After the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library opened, I chatted with the curator, Richard Norton Smith, who confirmed that Lincoln is regarded as the best writer of all the Presidents. Not bad for a Kentucky boy with only a few years of school! Brevity results from a zen-like focus on the essential, which is a skill to adopt both in writing and courtroom arguments.
Grant is acknowledged for the clarity of his writing. I am reading his Personal Memoirs right now and admire his lucid and direct writing style. His use of the active tense, simple Anglo-Saxon words, and short sentences all communicate his ideas with brisk precision. As a field commander, Grant mastered the art of drafting clear and concise orders to his generals. It’s interesting to think that his wartime successes originated from good writing! He is a joy to read. No wonder that the great Mark Twain and Gertrude Stein were big fans. Clear writing can sing from the page when done right. Consider the writing of Chief Justice Roberts as an example of clear and effective legal writing.
Finally, Oseid features the zeal of Teddy Roosevelt. Roosevelt’s zealous writing style derives from his kinetic personality. He lived life vigorously, and his writing reflects that vigor. President of the United States, adventurer, soldier, conservationist, Nobel Prize winner; his resume goes on and on. But just as important for Roosevelt were the quiet acts of reading and writing. Reading was as essential to him as breathing. He read over 20,000 books in his lifetime, quite a feat considering his level of activity. Not unsurprisingly, his prose was active, terse and full of color (just like his personality). Bring legal writing to life like Roosevelt: add zeal to make your writing interesting, concrete, and vibrant.
Leaders are Readers
One of the great features of this book is Oseid’s analysis of these President’s reading habits. All of these great writers were voracious readers. Oseid actually provides an inventory of the authors each read. Their respective reading habits were remarkable, particularly Lincoln’s, considering his lack of school. Books were literally his schoolhouse. Jefferson and Madison both read the classics in Latin and Greek. Lincoln read widely but focused on the Bible and Shakespeare to hone his writing. Grant loved fiction. Roosevelt read everything.
All of the Presidents loved poetry, particularly Lincoln. One can see Lincoln’s love for the music of language from the poetic flourishes in his great speeches. He also wrote poetry as a form of therapy.
Read great writers, and as you do, you will absorb their eloquence. Oseid quotes Chief Justice Roberts views on how being well-read translate into good writing:
You can’t do it consciously. You can’t say, “This is how you need to structure a sentence.” But your mind structures the words, and it sees them, and when you try to write them again, they tend to come out better because your mind is thinking of what was a pleasing sentence to read and remembers that when you write.
Study the sentences of great literature. Read books on how to write better (there are many). Take a few minutes each day to read poetry. Your commitment will result in better writing and also clearer thinking.
What They All Had in Common
Oseid concludes with common traits of all of these eloquent Presidential writers. All of them were: 1. Hardworking; 2. Gritty 3. Confident 4. Realistic, and 5. Creative. Writing is hard work. Start early, work hard, think outside the box, and edit mercilessly. If you follow their guide, you, too, can be a great communicator.
While few of us have the innate talent of a Jefferson or a Lincoln, writing well comes from perspiration rather than inspiration. Hard work is not a gift from above. It is disciplined and continuous effort rather than fairy dust that creates a quality work product. Establish your eloquence the old fashioned way, earn it!
I strongly recommend this well researched and fascinating piece of scholarship.
To watch the full interview of Professor Oseid, please click here.