Our law library received a financial donation. It was larger than normal but not so large as to involve naming rights or anything. The donating law firm asked that I write a letter recognizing the gift, to the lawyer who asked that it be made. They are retiring after decades and they valued the law library’s role in their professional life. It’s a feel good story. I was happy to write the letter. But I should never have shared it before it was final.

As a rule, I don’t have any real pride of ownership. Even with this blog, which is 100% for me and by me, I’m open to critique. I get things wrong, and I’m fortunate to have people who will let me know when I need to fix something.

When it comes to work writing especially, I’m really not that fussy about whether I have the right ideas or if they come from other people. Once I have those ideas, I do my best to put them into my voice and represent the information the best I can. But one of the important thing about writing is voice. One reason I like blogging is that I’ve been able to develop my own and now have a better sense of how I like saying things, which words I like to use.

His Master’s Voice

I once wrote a letter to Albertson’s grocery store. I am … thrifty and tend to buy store brand whatever. Canned vegetables, toilet paper, yogurt. Albertson’s redesigned their labels and I was struck by how artistic they were. Not just a yellow label and a stock photo of beans. These new labels had illustrations of their contents. They were simple and yet very striking.

I wrote the letter to tell them about how much I thought the labels were an improvement. A bit to my surprise, their marketing department followed up and asked if they could use the letter in a radio spot. Sure, I thought, why not? Soon after, they sent me a tape with the recorded spot.

Love those labels!!!

Part of an Albertson’s radio ad from 1998 or 1999

It was terrible. It was not verbatim what I wrote and the entire tone and voice had changed. I called them up and said that I didn’t care if they used the spot but if they would please take my name off of it. My partner and I have laughed about this many times. But anyone who knew me would know that I wouldn’t have used those words, in that order, with that tone, under almost any circumstance.

How we communicate is really important. For me, voice is what makes people sound authentic. I was at a meeting recently and someone kept using a phrase – it was “per se” or some similar Latin-y phrase – that they would never normally use. I couldn’t tell why they were doing it. I know people sometimes try to speak differently if they think they’re dealing with caste differences. And, unfortunately, I’ve noticed people seem to do this often with lawyers, exerting an outsized care about their word choice even though lawyers are not really any more careful than normal people with their language. (It’s like code switching but not as extensive, in that it may just be a phrase here or there, almost like a lifebuoy).

I wrote this note:

Thank you for your generous donation to the Law Library. We are honored to have been a part of your legal career and congratulate you on your [number] anniversary with [firm]. As you know, the San Diego Law Library serves many people in many ways. Law students find sanctuary in our stacks, to get through their degree or prepare for the bar. Lawyers find more and different information than they might have in their offices. Public and experts alike benefit from our professional librarians who can help guide and navigate through the legal research thicket.

Your kind contribution will enable us to continue to provide this role in San Diego County. As a lawyer who has seen the dramatic shift from the large print law libraries to the largely electronic ones, you know that legal information access never stays still for long. Our role will continue to change as legal publishers, as well as the administration of justice, evolve. We will use your gift to ensure that we are able to adapt to our ever-changing world.

As you can see, pretty innocuous. Some platitudes but also specific examples of how the law library is used by legal professionals over their career life cycle. Some specific word choices – both to be less formal but also to be inclusive (“As you know”) – that are how I normally write.

I was a bit surprised to get a re-write of the note back:

As some of you know, I suffer from negative first reaction. So this did trigger that, because the critique was not about ideas but about word choice and voice. But I am pretty good at waiting for a second reaction. In this case, though, it was pretty much the same as the first:


Now, anyone who has worked with lawyers knows that some people can’t help themselves. Something I learned after years working at law firms, law schools, and at the ABA was that you never ever over-draft a document. One phase of document creation when working with lawyers is to plan for their often unnecessary input. I purposely leave errors in draft documents because I understand that the goal often isn’t to make a better document, but to have the ability to impact the document with changes. In a sense, the deliberate errors were to allow that change to be vented, without causing more widespread damage.

I think it is fair to say that lawyers are probably not any better at writing than they are at legal research or anything else they (a) weren’t trained how to do, (b) don’t gain experience in and, (c) don’t think about as they are doing it. Bad legal writing is an evergreen topic.

More than that, writing and editing are two very different jobs. Even the best writers are not always great editors. This may be why law firm output is so awful and the collective noun for collaborative editing in a law firm is called “A Mess of Lawyers.” Perhaps lawyers think that editing is just writing differently. But that’s not what it is and a good editor will know how to improve a document without removing the author from it. It’s the difference between helping how fabric falls off a mannequin and putting an entirely different piece of clothing on it.

Let the Voice Alone

I really liked this post about what voice is (and tone). That’s a better explanation than I could offer. Like so much of life experience, I experience voice and feel like I can tell when someone is using a voice that isn’t theirs.

Some quirks that you’d learn about me from that revision:

  • “Abide” is not a word I would use in that manner. The Dude might abide but I don’t except to the extent that I can’t abide certain things.
  • I dislike all, none, ever, never, every. I guess I’m not a very argumentative or persuasive writer. But there are few extremes that I think are valid and when I read or hear someone use those words, I immediately focus on why.
  • I try not to use “I think” because, if I’m writing it, you probably know that. Unless it’s integral to understanding, I wouldn’t use “Today, …” or “present” unless it was meaningful to understand time transition.

The main thing: none of these changes improve or change the original meaning. They just say it differently, perhaps the way the reviser would say them. In fact, as you can see, they introduce typographical errors. If I’m ungenerous, it seems to me that these changes were made to make changes. A more gracious person might have just accepted my original submission and thought, “Well, that’s not how I would have said that.”

I have been fortunate to be appointed to the AALL Spectrum Editorial Board. It’s a real joy to see articles flowing through the publication process. I love trying to prospect new topics and authors. Seriously, if you have an idea and just need some encouragement or guidance, holler at me, so we can get you to the Spectrum article form.

As if that wasn’t great enough, we also get to help mentor writers through the process. I had my first one a few weeks ago. The article I read was not written the way that I would have written it. It was also an article I really liked and found interesting. You can have both of those things be true.

In that moment, you really have to put yourself to the side. First, you might reflect that you probably don’t have the expertise they have or you WOULD have written an article on that topic. Secondly, you didn’t write it so it doesn’t matter how you would have written it. I remember being very conscious of the need to keep myself out of the editorial process.

I’m not sure if it’s because I have thought about voice myself before or not. Maybe I was remembering papers I’d received back in school or redrafts from lawyers. But you probably know how it feels when someone changes what you wrote, using words you wouldn’t use or creating a meaning you didn’t intend. It’s almost like saying something and the other person not bothering to listen.

What I hear you saying is …

… No. No, that’s not what I’m saying at all.

The best part about offering some editorial advice was the feeling that it was additive. It’s collaborative – everyone wants the best possible outcome. I wanted it to be different from me just asserting different word choices or inserting ideas that the authors may have already considered and rejected. So each time I thought about making a comment, I thought about how to phrase it so that it left the choice with the author but explained how I thought it might be improved. I wanted to make the cloth hang better, not change what it was.

I’ve benefited from plenty of editorial advice, insights that go well beyond “you have these typos and grammar errors.” Most writers will catch that sort of error, using methods like the one I learned in legal research and writing, reading backwards. Those are the sorts of things that are often just right or wrong.

Voice, though. Voice is what you add to it and only you have your voice. It’s one reason I find the automated, machine learning tools like Microsoft Editor to be so frustrating. Your word choices support your voice. If you only use the machine’s recommendations, then you may be using a generic voice and losing an opportunity for your own authentic writing.

It takes a bit of modesty to write for others, whether on a personal blog or for publication. If someone asks you for feedback about their writing, consider how you can help them get the result they want. Avoid just making changes because it’s faster. That assumes you already understand what they are trying to say, and why they made the word and phrase choices they made. Tell them if you think there are ways to get an idea across differently – not better, because how can you know? – based on your experience.

And have the humility to understand that the way you’d say it isn’t the way it needs to be said. I’ve edited work for my staff and other colleagues over the years. It’s a real moment of pride when they present their paper or get published or even just write an email to the Board president or CEO for the first time.

In the end, I ignored the re-written note about the donation. I have enough confidence, and role stature, that I can do that now. We should all be able to speak or write with our own voice and authenticity.