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Nine Lessons I Learned About Writing as a Trial Lawyer

I was a trial lawyer for thirty-one years before I retired and began a second career as a mystery/crime novelist. My law practice was not glamorous—no flashy criminal trials or high-profile, big-dollar civil cases. I did run-of-the-mill civil litigation: mostly real estate claims, business disputes, contract matters and employment cases.

Contrary to the image of daily duels in the courtroom from popular literature, television and movies, the work of most attorneys—particularly attorneys in civil practice—is writing. I was no exception. I spent most days drafting contracts and composing briefs and motions.

It was pretty dry stuff, and nowhere near as much fun as inventing quirky characters and putting together twisty plots has proven to be. But you can’t spend that much time writing and not learn something from it. And even though the writing I do now is worlds away from the legal writing I did, plenty of what I learned in those three decades has application to the writing of fiction.

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John Keyse-Walker practiced law for thirty years, representing business and individual clients, educational institutions, and government entities. He is an avid salt- and freshwater angler, a tennis player, kayaker, and an accomplished cook. He lives in Ohio with his wife. His first novel, Sun, Sand, Murder, won the 2015 Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of American First Crime Novel Award.

Here are nine lessons I learned as a lawyer which help me write mystery/crime fiction now:

1. Capture the reader’s attention soon: I knew judges who would stop reading a brief if it was boring or poorly written. They considered it a waste of their time. And it was their job to read the brief! Just imagine if your reader is doing the reading for pleasure. So how did I avoid having my briefs go unread?

There was always something in every case that would capture the judge’s interest—a legal issue, a juicy fact pattern, a compelling argument. The trick was to get it in front of the judge early, within the first two or three pages. That would get them into the brief where you could then tell your whole story.

The same is true of fiction readers. Place something to capture their interest in the first few pages of your manuscript or lose them forever.

2. Be concise: A legal brief had to be packed with important content. Most courts limited the number of pages you could submit. As a result, in a very limited space, you had to explain the facts of the case, the law, and put them together in an argument for your client’s position. Filler, in the form of adverbs or adjectives, wasted available space. A clean, spare style of writing usually won the day.

There’s a bit more leeway when writing fiction, but readers will still reject flowery, frivolous prose. Make your words count.

3. Big words are bad: Judges understood and appreciated when I used “car” instead of “motor vehicle,” “sign” instead of “execute,” “charity” instead of “eleemosynary institution.” Don’t make your readers read your work with a dictionary at their fingertips. You’re trying to tell them a story, not impress them with your vocabulary.

4. Revise, revise, revise: The first draft of any contract I ever wrote was not as good as the second draft, and the second draft never as good as the third. Revisions, with some time to let the work simmer between drafts, are always necessary and always an improvement.

5. Proofread to perfection: The impact of a good brief could be lessened by a few well-placed typos and destroyed by a host of them. Typos and bad grammar told the judge that you are sloppy and didn’t care. And if those details were sloppy, the probability was that your legal research was of the same quality.

In the world of fiction writing, typos and grammar errors convey the same message to agents, editors and publishers. Make sure your work is perfect. It shows them you care and it shows that you are proficient in a vital aspect of your chosen profession.

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6. Let the reader draw his own conclusions: “Witness Smith is a liar” written in a brief is not nearly as effective as showing how four disinterested witnesses contradicted Smith’s testimony. The impact is created by allowing the reader to draw his own conclusions.

The same applies to writing fiction. Contrast the sentence “It was a beautiful night” with “The night was scented with frangipani.” The message is the same but the latter sentence conjures a whole set of images, where the former is a dull conclusion.

7. The Rule of Three: An attorney mentor of mine told me to always present crucial testimony to a jury three times—tell them what they will hear from the witness, then let them hear directly from the witness, then tell them what they have heard.

This “Rule of Three” has a balance to it beyond mere reinforcement. A grouping of three has an orderliness that is somehow pleasing, and almost lyrical, when applied to writing. An example: “The murder was an act of necessity, the shooting of the rabid dog, the torching of the wasp nest, the shovel to the head of the serpent in the nursery.”

8. Don’t tell it; have someone say it: Lawyers are notorious for putting their own spin on the words of the parties and witnesses in a case. This is done mostly by paraphrasing—by telling the story—rather than directly quoting. Yet the greatest impact, in the courtroom or a brief, comes not from paraphrasing but from the person’s own quoted words.

That impact carries over to fiction writing. Setting out the story through character dialogue adds a life and liveliness that can never be achieved through a third-party telling.

9. Get it done: Courts set deadlines that are rigid and do not provide extensions for things like writer’s block. You are told when your brief is due, and if it is not done, there are consequences.

Developing an “on-time” mindset helps in the writing world, too. Like most people, agents and editors appreciate when you do what you say you are going to do, on time and with no excuses.

Apply these lessons from the legal world, fellow writers. You will be pleasantly surprised how much they help your writing career.

If you’re an agent looking to update your information or an author interested in contributing to the GLA blog or the next edition of the book, contact Writer’s Digest Books Managing Editor Cris Freese at cris.freese@fwmedia.com.

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