Writing for non-writers, part the first

A few weeks ago, I had more fun than was probably strictly necessary teaching an online course. But then, it’s not every seminar that you form the world’s first Scots Lawyer School of Japanese Poetry!

The course – CLT’s Legal Writing for Communication and Publication – was designed for lawyers, a surprising amount of whom find writing a problem. I’m not being sarcastic, by the way. Lawyers are all about words, and using them in a specific sense to ensure they can only be read one way. It’s just that, sometimes, they forget non-lawyers don’t quite speak the same language.

So I decided to make the warm-up exercise – which was really about the value of compression in writing – writing a haiku. And bless the participants, they all went for it!

Anyway, I’m not going to force you to write a haiku. Although leave one in the comments box if you’re inspired. Instead, I was going to extract one or two highlights from the course. This isn’t meant exclusively for lawyers. Nor is it meant just for writers, or people who consider themselves writers. Because, in the end of the day, we’ve all got to be writers, haven’t we? Especially at the moment, with all this wfh malarkey.

Incidentally, if you or your organisation are troubled by garbling issues, feel free to contact me via my business site for a tailored seminar on this. My rates are very reasonable. (End of advert. No pressure.)

Top Writing Tips

There are countless ‘top writing tips’ to be had – just google it, as I did! These are the ones that speak to me most. They apply, by the way, whether we’re talking about a story, a poem, a song, or a difficult work email. Writing is writing is writing! So, not necessarily in order of importance:


  • Leave it to settle – in other words, build in time for you to spend time apart from your work. In a busy work environment this isn’t always going to be feasible. However, I can’t stress enough how useful this can be. Even if you revise and revise a piece of writing straight after you’ve written it, there’s a point at which you become blind to its faults – both typographical and stylistic. If you can, write it ahead of a deadline. Then put it away and come back to it. Actually, come to think of it, that probably is my top tip.


  • The blank page can be a tyrant – get something down. Something is better than nothing. There’s something happens in the right side of the brain – the creative side – that kicks off once you’ve covered a bit of that page. Even if the first paragraph is pants, and you cut it later, it will have got you going.


  • Learn when to switch off your inner editor. This is another right brain/left brain thing. Broadly speaking, your right brain comes up with all the creative ways of expression; the left brain is the more rational side that you engage when you edit. Early morning or late at night, when you’re tired, might be a good time to let your creative thoughts flow. In the middle of the day, your left brain will be fully engaged – and being too damn sensible!

  • Short is better than long. That goes for words, sentences and paragraphs. If you cut down your sentences to be as short as possible, with as few subordinate clauses as possible, it will be easier for your reader. Why make it hard? Who are you trying to impress?


  • Grammar, punctuation and matters of style matter. They just do. There are endless resources online, and MS Word of course can ‘check’ for you. Be aware, of course, that if you’ve made a typo but it’s become a different word, Word won’t pick that up. And it’s not perfect: ‘outwith’ is a perfectly good word in Scotland, but there’s a red line under it if I put it in Word.


  • Read with an analytical mind. What makes other writers difficult to read? What makes others an easy read? Again, this goes for all styles of writing. Read the press releases and blog entries for your employer and others. Think of any textbooks you use regularly. What ones are a pleasure to read? What ones are a pain? Would you rather read Hemingway, Lee Child, or Dickens? Why do you think that is?


  • Cut at the technical jargon. Then cut again. Obviously, some of this depends on your audience – if you’re  writing for internal use with other specialists, specialist terms might cut down on verbiage. But in general, even specialists like to read stuff simply put.


  • If you can, read your work out loud. It’ll surprise you what jumps off the page, and what doesn’t. I know this won’t be easy in the open plan office where you work. So, if you currently are working from home, take advantage. Read it to your kids to get them to sleep!


  • Vary your vocabulary and syntax. Have you used ‘requirement’ three times in the same paragraph? What else could you use. How about need? It’s shorter, and will generally do the same job for you.


  • Keep a notebook handy. Keep it by your bedside. I’m serious. Back to that left brain/right brain thing. Doesn’t matter if you’re composing a three-volume fantasy saga, or summarising the latest tax exemptions. It’s amazing how issues you have with a piece of writing will resolve themselves overnight. Or even in the middle of it.

Next time, I tackle a tip which takes a bit more explanation: Be fluent in Anglo-Saxon!

Meantime, this week’s musical release is a bit of a double bluff, because I’m going against the lyrics and heading for the Highlands tomorrow (hence the scenic photos, in case you were wondering). It’s a Tribute to Venus Carmichael favourite which, in the absence of Kelly’s golden vocals, I’ve given a fresh twist to with a new, fuller arrangement than the original and my own voice. I have to say I’m pretty happy with the result. An even fuller version might be available on an EP some time soon.

‘Heartlands,’ incidentally, is a Lowland Scottish in-joke. Think service stations on the M8. If this means nothing to you, don’t worry – just enjoy the song!


Incidentally, feel free to leave any comments – including your own top writing tips or haiku – below.




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