Wednesday, November 23, 2011

14 WOW Wednesday: Inara Scott on Writing Like a Lawyer

I know, I know. You had a visceral reaction to the title of this blog. It probably wasn't a nice reaction. It probably went something like, "Ew, why would I want to write like a lawyer?"

Here's the problem: I am/was/will always be a lawyer. Regardless of whether I am practicing law actively or not, it is part of my DNA. My lawyerly-ness influences my writing more than I want to admit. So obviously, I couldn't write a column on my journey to publication without talking about it. :-)

Being a lawyer is both a blessing and a curse. The curse part has to do with people hating your profession, and occasionally hating you because of your profession. The blessing has something to do with why so many lawyers end up as successful authors. And really, it's related to the curse. Because part of what people hate about lawyers makes us really good writers. The great thing is, you don't have to be a lawyer to enjoy these blessings. I've extracted them from my DNA and am ready to hand them over to you.

1) Care about words. A lot.

Lawyers are trained to pay enormous attention to words. Why does a statute use the word "shall" in one section, and "may" in another? Why does one case paraphrase another, instead of quoting it? What is the definition of the word? What was the definition when the statute was written?

Lawyers treat words like individual, precious beings with distinct personalities and meanings. Writers must, too. When you say your character has "auburn" hair, you convey one meaning. If you say her hair is reddish, chestnut, or sable, you convey something else. Be precise. Slender and lean are different words. So are cruel, mean, and vindictive. Don't allow yourself to become sloppy when it comes to your most precious resource.

2) Care about punctuation. Even more.

We've all seen the fantastic book, "Eats, Shoots, and Leaves." (If you haven't, go read it right now.) Everyone should know that the placement of a comma can dramatically change the meaning of a sentence (i.e., Eats shoots and leaves; Eats shoots, and leaves.) I once litigated a case over the placement of a comma. When your livelihood can turn on a semi-colon, you don't throw them around lightly.

Learn your punctuation. Dashes are powerful weapons. Commas can be confusing. God help us if you start throwing in semi-colons. Be thoughtful and learn from your copy-editor. You will get these things wrong. I do all the time. Don't try for perfection, but never give up, and never take it lightly. This is your craft and your tools. Chose the right one for the job.

3) Only use passive voice when you are avoiding responsibility. 

Then, use it all the time.
I spilled the toxic waste. The toxic waste was spilled. See? Neat, right? I went from taking responsibility to absolving myself completely. The active and passive voice both have a role in writing. But when telling a story from deep within a character's point of view, you should have a reason for them to step into a passive voice. Why would someone telling a story move from the actor to a passive bystander? Don't eliminate the passive voice completely. Just pick the right times to use it.

4) Be passionate. Care about your work.

If you've ever heard a lawyer argue a case, you'll know they get excited. Really excited. About stupid things, like commas, and "shall"s, and "may"s. You should bring this same passion to your work. Writing without passion is limp, boring stuff. Fill it with life. Fill it with passion. It doesn't matter what you're writing. Make it the most important thing in the world. Make it sparkle.

Now, don't hate me too much if you try all this and someone tells you that you sound like a lawyer. It's okay. The best writers often do.


Given Inara Scott's love of argument, it was really only a matter of time before she ended up in law school. The mossy forests and volcanic beauty of Oregon led her to Lewis and Clark Law School and Portland, where she finally decided to settle down. It took another five years for Inara to screw up the courage to quit her lawyer job and devote herself to writing and teaching. Today, she writes anything and everything, including children’s books, young adult fiction, and adult romance. Her debut novel in the fabulous Delcroix Academy Talents/Candidates/Marked series was published in 2010 by Disney-Hyperion Books for Children, with the second book released in 2011.


  1. Oh, thanks so much for sharing how being a lawyer will help me be a successful writer. Because I'm one too and agree with your points about writing as a lawyer. You're inspiring me to see that I can switch from successful lawyer to successful author. Thanks.

  2. Good luck Natalie! Now, I didn't write about the downsides to being a lawyer. Like, we have stripped all adjectives and adverbs from our vocabulary.

  3. I love this post, especially #3.

    If I finish my Nano novel this month, I will have completed it.

    If not, it will have been attempted.

    Neat! : )

  4. I absolutely adore this post, and especially love number one. It actually makes me think about--for a moment--becoming a lawyer.

  5. Go Beth Go!! I'm so impressed with the Nano crowd! This, of course, is not the time for you to worry about word choice and punctuation. Save that for later! ;-)

  6. Oh Emily, what a kind thing to say. I really believe lawyering is a great career for writers. Regardless of what Law & Order depicts, most of lawyering is writing and researching. Good luck with your writing!

  7. It happens that my dad is a former lawyer. He often jokes about it.

    But he never brought up word choice and punctuation. But he tells a few tales about the job. For example, when he had to hire a bounty hunter (or a similar job) who hid in trash cans to find someone who evaded court.

  8. This is a fantastic post! I love it. Awesome tips.

  9. I LOVE this post! All such great points and things I strive for every time I sit at the keyboard. I never thought about how much lawyers have to scrutinize each word from every possible angle. It makes perfect sense, and what a training ground for a writing career. Thank you for sharing this.

  10. Wonderful post. Thanks.

  11. C0, your dad clearly practiced in a more interesting area of law than I did!

  12. Thanks Lynda! Thanks for checking out the blog!

    Michele, I'm so glad the blog resonated with you. Lawyers certainly don't have a lock on good writing, but the habits you pick up can help you down the road. :-)

  13. Hi Linda, thanks for reading! Glad you enjoyed the blog.

  14. Apparently I love arguing with my husband, but I'd make a lousy lawyer. You can't kiss and make up as a lawyer. Well, you can. But then you'd be disbarred.

    Great writing advice, Inara. :D


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