Monday, June 1, 2015

WHAT THE HECK IS LEGAL WRITING? AN INTERVIEW WITH MY FAVORITE "EDITOR"

I’ve been writing for children for over twenty-five years.  The person who vets my manuscript before it leaves the house has always been my husband, Paul.  He catches all of my initial errors in spelling, sentence structure, grammar, and consistency. Sometimes our “editing conversations” get heated when he messes with my story structure.  Poor guy.  I might burst out with, “What do you mean?”  “How dare you!”  These are words I would never use with a publishing house editor and Paul's advice is usually sound.  But Paul keeps coming back for more drama when I ask him to, “Please take a look at this.”  I am eternally grateful for his wonderful skills, support . . . and patience.
Here I am with my favorite "editor."

After working over thirty years as an attorney with the Justice Department he now teaches Torts and Legal Writing at American University’s Washington School of Law.   Since he has transitioned into teaching, Paul has published numerous articles and this book.


With the recent passing of William Zinsser, author of the classic ON WRITING WELL excellence in all kinds of writing has been on my mind. 

I’ve been living with Paul for forty years but know little about legal writing.  Today I decided quiz my favorite editor on this topic.

Can you explain what legal writing is?
            Legal writing is writing done for law-trained readers in a form they expect and that meets their needs.  It uses structured legal analysis to explain how the law applies in a particular situation.  Structured legal analysis boils down to stating the issue to be addressed, stating the rule that applies to that issue, applying the rule to the facts at hand, and reaching a conclusion.  Lawyers call this IRAC (Issue, Rule, Application, Conclusion).  We use structured legal analysis for both objective and persuasive writing. 
Objective writing is explaining in a neutral fashion how the law applies in a given situation.  Here is an example.  The issue is whether your sister gave you book when she said, “I want you to have this forever,” as she handed you the book and you put it in your bag.  The Rule for a valid gift requires (1) intent to give, (2) delivery, and (3) acceptance.  Applying the Rule here is easy. (1) Your sister saying, “I want you to have this forever,” shows intent. (2) When she handed you the book she made delivery.  (3) When you put it in your bag, you accepted it.  In conclusion, because each requirement of the Rule was met there was a valid gift.  Objective writing applies the Rule to the facts to find the Conclusion.
Persuasive writing is advocacy.  Here the writer is trying to lead the reader to one conclusion rather than another.  This is an example.  The issue is whether your sister gave you book when she said, “I want you to have this forever,” as she put it on your mom’s kitchen table from which you picked it up and put it in your bag after she left.  The Rule for a valid gift requires (1) intent to give, (2) delivery, and (3) acceptance.  Applying the Rule here is easy [or so the Advocate says].  Two requirements are met: (1) your sister saying, “I want you to have this forever,” shows intent; (3) your picking up the book and bagging it shows acceptance. But the requirement (2) delivery was not met because Mom’s table is a neutral place where family members have put things for years without any thought that doing so changed the ownership of the objects.  In conclusion, because the delivery requirement of the Rule was not met there was a not valid gift. 
In this example the Advocate’s argument turns on how one requirement of the Rule applies to the facts.  An Advocate might also argue that the Issue really involves different facts or that a different Rule should be applied.  Persuasive writing begins with the Conclusion and works backward to make the facts and the Rule fit.  We know the Conclusion from the outset because whenever lawyers engage in persuasive writing they always conclude that their side wins.

What makes good legal writing?
            Good legal writing, like all good writing, can be judged objectively by whether it succeeds in accomplishing its intended purpose with the audience for whom it is written.  My students learn that Audience & Purpose form the foundation for all successful communications. 
If the purpose of a document is to advise a client about the likely consequences of a proposed action, the document will be successful if it accurately explains the matter in terms the client can trust and understand.  If a legal brief is written to persuade a judge to rule in a particular way, it will be successful if it explains the matter in a way that leads the judge to trust the writer, follow the logic of the argument, empathize with the advocate’s client, and agree with the author’s conclusion.  In both examples, details matter, clarity is critical, and sloppiness that the reader perceives will undermine the document’s credibility.

There are many successful authors of fiction who started out as lawyers, including two women in my writing group.  Are there skills learned in legal writing that transition into creative writing?
            This is a really hard question.  Successful legal writers may be more aware of the importance of Audience and Purpose than other people.  They certainly understand the importance of accuracy and clarity.  I don’t think these provide a critical advantage to writing fiction.
            I think the single biggest advantage lawyers have in writing fiction is that many lawyers spend a substantial portion of their time writing and re-writing.  We write every day. We learn to organize our thoughts, put them in a form that can be readily understood, and edit what we have written.  The constant practice may make it easier when we turn to another form of writing.





Wednesday, April 1, 2015

CELEBRATING NATIONAL POETRY MONTH WITH EMILY DICKINSON PROFESSOR, MARTHA ACKMANN

Happy National Poetry Month!  Today, I'm celebrating in a big way with a guest blog by someone who is a superb teacher, writer, world-class Emily Dickinson scholar, and treasured friend.  Enjoy!

For the last 17 years, I’ve been teaching a college seminar on Emily Dickinson.  I teach the course in the poet’s house in Amherst, Massachusetts, and in the very rooms where Dickinson created her memorable verse. 
The Emily Dickinson Homestead in Amherst, Massachusetts
I joke that the course doesn’t make me work too hard: the house does all the heavy lifting.  That’s mainly true.  From the moment students walk into the Dickinson Homestead, they are staggered by the quiet, the austerity, and the “certain slant of light”—as Dickinson would say--that warms the old wood floors.

Marty Figley was a student in my class a handful of years ago and I will never forget how she exclaimed when early in the semester I off-handedly mentioned that Emily Dickinson owned a big, drooling Newfoundland: a dog named Carlo.

I immediately could see the ideas firing in Marty’s imagination. She was beginning to conjure up a children’s book on Emily and her beloved companion.

Sure enough, a few years later Marty’s book, Emily and Carlo was published—a charming and heartfelt evocation of a child, her dog and the love they shared.

Emily Dickinson said Carlo was one of her best friends and—no doubt—a literary inspiration to boot.  Writing to a new friend, Dickinson observed, “You ask of my Companions.  Hills—sir—and the Sundown, and a Dog large as myself, that my father bought me.” (Letter 261).

For this National Poetry Month, it’s a special pleasure to think about Emily Dickinson roaming the gentle hills of Amherst with her beloved Carlo. Inspiration came from just about everywhere for Dickinson.: spiders, chipped teacups, a neighbor’s chimney, prairies, bees and reverie.  “My business is Circumference,” she once said, and she meant it.

Poetry captures the world we see, the world we’d like to see, and even the world we try to turn away from.  At its best, it clarifies our vision presenting the treasures around us as if they’d just been washed in a cleansing summer rain.

Sometime during this month take a walk, look up, look down and consider the world that Emily and Carlo once saw. What you experience may astonish you.

And when you return home—pull out a volume of your favorite verse. The words will spin you into the incomparable world of imagination.  For Emily Dickinson, there was no better place to live.  That is, if she had Carlo by her side.
A path traveled by Emily and her beloved Carlo, "just wide enough for two who love."

Martha Ackmann is a writer who teaches at Mount HolyokeCollege in South Hadley, Massachusetts.  Her most recent book is Curveball:The Remarkable Story of Toni Stone, First Woman to Play Professional Baseball in the Negro League. Marty Figley is one of her favorite students. (Martha wrote this last sentence and I'm very flattered!)

Martha's wonderful book about another exceptional woman!

Sunday, November 9, 2014

THE DREAMY DOWNTON ABBEY COSTUME EXHIBIT AT WINTERTHUR

Yesterday I spent several delightful hours wandering among forty historically inspired costumes from the immensely popular Emmy-winning PBS series "Downton Abbey."  The exhibit, at the Winterthur  galleries, will end January 4th.  If you can't make it, here are a few pictures of the glorious garb that will make you even more ready for the fifth season of the show, which premiers in the U.S. on January 4.

This beautifully presented exhibit informs on societal dress codes, tiaras, corsets, afternoon tea, and much more.  The costumes were made to fit the actors who wore them, so you can conjure up images of your favorite characters standing before you.  And, mourn the ones that have left the series . . . 

According to Downton Abbey costume designer, Susannah Buxton, the costumes are "translations of period dress, inspired by the past but influenced by modern styles and enhanced for dramatic television effect." 

Just as the stories of both the "upstairs and downstairs" characters are told in the series, the costumes of both were displayed.
I wonder how many apron changes a real-life maid would make during a work day in order to remain so pristine.
The manly Mr. Bates in his own version of an apron.
Here are a few examples of the gorgeousness of the gowns included in the exhibit.
A vision in rose
Lady Cybil's daring harum pants
The dress is magnificent, but look at that fabulous face . . .
Lovely wedding attire, even if the event was rather a bust!

It was fun to closely examine the intricate detailing on many of the garments.
Vintage and new combined with exquisite results.




















What a statement one could make wearing this hat!
Why doesn't L. L. Bean carry stuff like this?
Back home again, I long for the new season of Downton to begin.
Shall I fiddle with photos and dream that I'm wearing one of those magnificent gowns?
Or just hang out in my study, drinking a cuppa tea!

Saturday, July 19, 2014

LOVE THOSE PANCAKES

I love pancakes.  When I was a kid, mom made them every Saturday morning for breakfast.  My little brother and I had fierce pancake eating contests, but the sticky-fingered loser never felt bad. A favorite place to eat in our hometown of Springfield, Missouri, was Aunt Martha's Pancake House.  Oh, what that woman could do with a flapjack!  Fifty-four years of hotcake flipping and the restaurant is still going strong!

I've continued the tradition of Saturday morning pancakes.  This A.M. I made them for my grandsons.  The second batch was on the way when this picture was taken!
Watching the butter slide off the hotcakes while waiting for more.  What well-mannered boys!
Here's my favorite basic recipe for pancakes.  It's from the classic Fannie Farmer Cookbook, Twelfth Edition, page 496.  I usually double the recipe.

GRIDDLECAKES
½ – ¾ cup milk
2 tablespoons melted butter
1 egg
1 cup white flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 tablespoons sugar
½ teaspoon salt

Beat the milk, butter, and egg lightly in a mixing bowl.  Mix the flour, baking powder, sugar, and salt and add them all at once to the first mixture, stirring just enough to dampen the flour.  (Add more milk if batter is too thick.)  Lightly butter or grease your pan or griddle, and set over moderate heat until a few drops of cold water sprinkled on the pan sizzle.  Bake until cakes are full of bubbles, then flip.  Brown the other side and then enjoy!

Here's a great list of children's picture books about pancakes to share with your young pancake lovers.  Thank you, "LaurenLanita."


Wednesday, February 5, 2014

ABRAHAM LINCOLN LOVED THE TELEGRAPH MACHINE . . . AND CAKE

Abraham Lincoln has been on my mind lately.  His birthday is next week (Feb. 12) plus a few days after that I will be sharing my book about him at the National Portrait Gallery and celebrating Presidential Family Day along with representatives from the wonderful President Lincoln's Cottage.

I have always admired our 16th president. After all, he’s the guy who wrote the Gettysburg Address, freed the slaves, and won the Civil War.  Before his tragic assassination, Lincoln envisioned joining our war-torn country back together again, promising forgiveness, “With malice towards none, with charity for all.”  Many Americans, including me, rate him as our greatest president.
Wonderful portrait by David Riley for President Lincoln, Willie Kettles, and the Telegraph Machine 
 But four years ago, after researching and writing my children’s book President Lincoln, Willie Kettles, and the Telegraph Machine I loved him even more. 

Here are some things I learned. 
Not a country bumpkin, Lincoln was interested in new ideas and concepts.  He is the only president to hold a patent.  In 1849 Lincoln invented a device that lifted boats over sandbars and other obstructions. 
No. 6,469 patent for
"Buoying Vessels Over Shoals"
When Lincoln was president the telegraph had been around for several decades.  But Lincoln was the only world leader to see the value of it in battle.  By spring 1862 Lincoln was using it to give orders to his generals in the field.  He called the telegraph messages “lightning messages” because he could send and receive information so quickly—in real time.  This new electronic technology had a profound influence on how Lincoln commanded the war.



The War Department telegraph office was next door to the White House.  Many of the young men who worked there were barely out of their teens.  Willie Kettles, the youngest telegrapher, who took the momentous message that Richmond had fallen, was only fifteen.  David Homer Bates, manager of the office, later wrote a memoir Lincoln in the Telegraph Office.  According to Bates, Lincoln was kind to all the telegraphers.  To me the mettle of a great person is shown by how they treat others (especially others with less power).  Bates said Lincoln regularly told jokes and used humor to diffuse tense situations.  After reading about Lincoln in the telegraph office, I appreciated another aspect of his greatness.
Lincoln in the War Department's telegraph office (drawn by C.M. Relyea) from  Bates' book
I enjoy ending a blog with a recipe.  Plus, it gives me an excuse to bake!  According to the Lincoln Home website, the man loved cakes.  And his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, baked them for him.   I would have too!

Here’s the recipe for Lincoln's favorite cake.  If it were up to me, I'd name this fabulous confection "Abe's Heavenly Almond Delight."  I can see why the man liked it!

WHITE CAKE
(Janice Cooke Newman's adapted recipe from Lincoln’s Table by Donna D. McCreary)

1 cup blanched almonds, chopped in a food processor until they resemble coarse flour
1 cup butter
2 cups sugar
3 cups flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
1 cup milk
6 egg whites
1 teaspoon vanilla extract  (I also added a teaspoon of almond extract)
confectionary sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a Bundt cake pan.
Cream butter and sugar. Sift flour and baking powder 3 times. (I just mixed the flour/baking powder well with a whisk.)
Add to creamed butter and sugar, alternating with milk. Stir in almonds and beat well.
Beat egg whites until stiff and fold into the batter. Stir in vanilla extract.
Pour into prepared pan and bake for 1 hour, or until a toothpick inserted comes out clean. Turn out on a wire rack and cool. When cool, sift confectionary sugar over top.


I won’t lie, this recipe was a little difficult to make—but worth the effort.  I decided to bake cupcakes and used very well-greased, floured silicone muffin pans, or nonstick greased metal tins with or without cupcake liners, baking them until light brown and springy on top  (about 25-30 minutes, depending on size of your cakes).   Cool cakes at least 10 minutes before removing from pans.  Delicious—especially with a little whipped cream!


This one's for you, Abe!
by David Riley

I'll be speaking and reading from my Lincoln book on Feb. 15, 2014, 1 p.m. at Kogod Courtyard, National Portrait Gallery.