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Legal Writing 102: Lessons From Songwriters

I've posted here several times recently to pass along the blogosphere's ongoing tips for better legal writing. I'd characterize most of those tips as Legal Writing 101 -- tips for avoiding truly "bad briefs," tips from brief-writing rockstar Justice John Roberts, and so on. Now let's move on to Legal Writing 102.

Notes The (new) legal writer blog asks here whether lawyers can learn from songwriters, and links to an interesting post on the Six Minutes blog entitled, "8 Speechwriting Lessons You Can Learn from Songwriters." In the Six Minutes post, Peter Jeff writes that there are eight very effective songwriting techniques that can also be used in speeches. As the (new) legal writer suggests, I think some of these can work well in legal briefs and arguments.

Here are a few of the eight techniques that seem most applicable to legal writing:

#2. Refrain

Jeff explains that a refrain is "a short phrase used in a series of (at least) three sentences. This short repetitive phrase is more strategic to the message and more memorable to the audience than repetition." For example:

  • Arnold Schwarzenegger at the 2004 Republican Convention:

   "America is back.
    Back from the attack on our homeland.
    Back from the attack on our economy.
    Back from the attack on our way of life."

  • President Ronald Reagan speaking on D-Day in 1984:

    "The men of Normandy had faith that what they were doing was right, faith that they fought for all humanity, faith that a just God would grant them mercy on this beachhead, or on the next."

#5: Rhythm

This technique involves changing the tempo of your speech or writing much like a songwriter changes the beats per measure. "Use at least five verbs in a repetitive sentence structure," Jeff says, "to generate a recurring beat that resonates with your audience." Example:

  • President John F. Kennedy's Inaugural Address, 1961:

    "We will pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, and oppose any foe in order to assure the survival and success of liberty."

#7: Echo

Use this technique to provoke your audience to echo a key phrase in your message. This will obviously have a different effect on a reader than on someone in an audience, but it might still be an effective way to engage a reader. Example:

  • Senator Ted Kennedy, 1988 Democratic Convention:

   "The vice‐president says he wasn’t there -- or can’t recall -- or never heard -- as the administration secretly plotted to sell arms to Iran. So when that monumental mistake was being made, I think it is fair to ask: where was George?

    The vice-president says he never saw -- or can’t remember -- or didn’t comprehend -- the intelligence report on General Noriega’s involvement in the cocaine cartel. So when that report was being prepared and discussed, I think it is fair to ask: where was George?

    The vice‐president claims he cares about the elderly -- but evidently he didn’t know, or wasn’t there, when the Administration tried repeatedly to slash Social Security and Medicare. So when those decisions were being made, I think it is fair to ask: where was George?

    And the vice‐president, who now speaks fervently of civil rights, apparently wasn’t around or didn’t quite hear when the Administration was planning to weaken voting rights, give tax breaks to segregated schools, and veto the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1988. So when all those assaults were being mounted, I think it is fair to ask: where was George?"

You can read the whole list here. As the (new) legal writer blog puts it, your next brief need not "read like Bob Dylan’s lyrics. But if some of these techniques are trying to happen in whatever you’re writing, consider letting them happen."

Posted by Bruce Carton on June 22, 2010 at 02:05 PM | Permalink | Comments (2)


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