In August 2008, Scribes, an organization that "seeks to create an interest in writing about the law and to promote a clear, succinct, and forceful style in legal writing," honored the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia with its lifetime achievement award. 

The award declared that the justice "has done as much as anyone in the modern era to promote clear, robust expression in a field often lacking in these qualities." (In addition to other writing, Scalia actually penned a lot of his own SCOTUS opinions, unlike many other justices who farm them out to their law clerks.)

In a speech he delivered upon accepting the award, Justice Scalia shared what he believed was the secret to good writing. Fortunately for us, we're able to read what he said that day about how to write well thanks to a new book, Scalia Speaks: Reflections on Law, Faith, and Life Well Lived.

In his speech, Justice Scalia argued that writing well doesn't require being intellectually gifted. Comparing writing to learning to speak foreign languages, or playing music, there is something that he says good writers need to do:

"There is, however, a certain quality possessed by the really great writer--legal or otherwise--that has nothing to do with brainpower and probably cannot be taught. The same phenomenon exists in other fields of human endeavor. The ability to speak foreign languages, for example, has nothing to do with IQ. And in the field of music--the other principal means of human communication--there is no reason to believe that Mozart was a genius in the ordinary sense of being brainy. He was a musical genius.

I think there is writing genius as well--which consists primarily, I think, of the ability to place oneself in the shoes of one's audience; to assume only what they assume; to anticipate what they anticipate; to explain what they need explained; to think what they must be thinking; to feel what they must be feeling."

Besides having a strong empathetic instinct, what else did Justice Scalia believe was required to become a good writer? Two things: time and sweat. And it was two experiences that taught him this lesson:

"I believe I was set on the road to good writing during my first year at Georgetown College. I had a young professor for English Composition whose name I still remember, so much angst did he bring to my freshman year. P.A. Orr was a Canadian, and a damned hard grader; and he gave a writing assignment every weekend. I was not accustomed to getting the B minuses that I received on my first few assignments, and as a consequence every weekend of my first semester I devoted many nervous hours to writing and rewriting. I am grateful to this day."

After graduating from Harvard Law School and practicing law for a few years, Justice Scalia taught classes in legal writing at the University of Virginia Law School. It was there that he learned, once again, what it takes to become a good writer:

"What I hope to have taught (in one semester) were the prerequisites for self-improvement in writing, which are two things: (1) the realization (it came upon some of my students as an astounding revelation) that there is an immense difference between writing and good writing; and (2) the recognition that it takes time and sweat to convert the former into the latter."

Putting yourself in your reader's shoes. Practice. And putting in the time. These are the three essential lessons that Justice Scalia learned over a lifetime of writing.

And as for intellect? It should come as a relief that you don't have to be a genius to write well, that you can learn the craft as long as you put in the time and effort. But is there really no connection with IQ and being a good writer? On this, he does have one final observation:

"I do believe, however, that there is at least this connection between good writing and intellect: it is my experience that a careless, sloppy writer has a careless, sloppy mind."

This article also appeared on LinkedIn.

Published on: Nov 10, 2017
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