Scare Yourself a Little, Frustrated Lawyer-Writers

November 1 is breathing down our necks! Why does this matter? Well, there’s this thing I write about sometimes, called NaNoWriMo–short for National Novel Writing Month. It’s an annual event, in which many seemingly sane people commit to writing 50,000 words during the month of November. And yes, many lawyers have participated!

I’m going to go all in for once, and commit to the whole 50,000 word deal. (AAAACCKKK!) You don’t have to do it that way. In the past, I’ve committed to simply writing daily for 20 minutes, or setting a much lower word target, like 500 words/day.

surprise sculpture

Photo by Ashwin Vaswani on Unsplash

Lawyers tilt toward perfection, as some of you may (ahem) be aware. Writing 50,000 words in one month, while working and dealing with holidays, will obliterate your perfectionism. Personally, I think that is the best thing about NaNoWriMo. You have to embrace what Anne Lamott calls “writing a shitty first draft.”

That shitty first draft is usually the difference between actually getting something written, or not. Too often, lawyers and other writer-wannabes spend ridiculous amounts of time crafting gold-plated sentences, painfully and at great length. They struggle to eke out even 200 words/day.

perfection voice oppressorWhen you let all those half-formed thoughts escape, and start somewhere in the middle where your story-brain is hanging out, words will come gushing out.

The firehose may not start the very first time you try this technique, because you might be terrified of changing your approach. Terror tends to paralyze us, or make us run like gazelles.

But if you tell your fear that it is simply part of the process, rather than taking it seriously and skittering away from it, your inner writer will eventually get brave and step up. Promise.

If you are interested in joining an online group, I’ve created a Facebook page for lawyers and other folks I know to come hang out and share their experiences, successes, and fears. There is one question to answer, simply to weed out bots and trolls.

We can talk about gimmicks to get over ourselves, where to find some *^)@ing inspiration when it’s mid-November, or whatever else is on your mind.

Come play! The only rules for this page are Vegas Rules, and Be Kind.

Hope to see you on November 1, or a few days after. Start when you’re able. But start.

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who worked for a decade in the publishing industry, mostly writing for legal newsletters and magazines. She wrote about half a novel over the course of a year, in 20-minute daily increments. If you’d like more individual attention than a group can provide, try a sample writing coaching session with Jennifer. Drop her a line at jalvey@jenniferalvey.com to schedule yours today!

Hey, Lawyers–Wanna Write a Novel in November? Sure You Do!

It’s almost November . . . and if you’re a lawyer longing to write your novel, that is great news. Aspiring lawyer-writers among you who have thought about a novel or other fiction for a while have likely heard of Nanowrimo. That’s NAtional NOvel WRIting MOnth, for those newer to their flirtation with fiction. Nanowrimo happens every November, and it’s a great way to transform your fiction dreams into reality.

NaNo-2018-Writer-Facebook-CoverThe idea is to write 50,000 words in a month. Sounds terrifying, right? What if you don’t have an outline? What if you barely have a glimmer of an idea for a novel? What if you’re insanely busy for the next hundred years, and don’t have time for writing a novel?

The good news is, you don’t need an outline, or a developed idea. You don’t even need vast savannahs of time. Other things you don’t need for Nanowrimo are:

  • Perfect, or even good, grammar or spelling;
  • A best-seller idea;
  • More than a wisp of an idea;
  • An agent;
  • A new computer;
  • Magic pixie dust;
  • Experience writing fiction;
  • Great health;
  • A vacation; or
  • Anyone’s permission or approval!

The most important thing you need for Nanowrimo is a willingness to write badly. Insanely badly, even. What Nanowrimo will give you is that “shitty first draft” that Anne Lamott talks about in her classic, yet hilarious, writing book, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.

The Importance of Writing Pure Crap

Shitty first drafts are where it’s at when it comes to writing anything, really. Shitty first drafts are pretty much the opposite of how most lawyers write everything.

Most of you use this writing process: Stare at your screen, thinking. Position your hands above the keyboard, then stop. Repeat 5 times minimum. So you spend an eternity crafting the perfect first sentence in your document, which leaves you tired and questioning your writing abilities. Then, you eventually go back and do the same thing for sentence #2, and sentence #3, and so on.

word vomitWriting like that hellish and exhausting. Writing like that is why the idea of writing 50,000 words fills you with abject fear. But it doesn’t need to be—and shouldn’t be—that way. When you opt instead for vomiting on the page, words come much more quickly, because they aren’t pre-edited. That is, emphatically, a GOOD THING.

The time for wordsmithing, flow, sequence, and making your words sing usually isn’t during that shitty first draft. Yes, you’ll probably get a few jewels despite yourself—hurray! But the point is to create a big, wet pile of word clay that you can shape, mold, or maybe decide to pulverize and rebuild.

A Place Just for Lawyer-Writers To Hang Out

So join me this month and march through Nanowrimo together. I’ve created a closed Facebook group, Nanowrimo Lawyers 2018, where we can gather, have fun, whine-bitch-moan, and also support each other when the going gets rocky. You need only answer a few questions, just to make sure you’re not a troll, and you’re in.

writer coffee houseThis will not be the place to get critiques of your work, or advice on structure and other mechanics of novel-writing. For that, and for great suggestions about how to get your head in a good writing place, check out Nanowrimo.org/nano-prep.

If you’re reading this after November 1, but still during November 2018, don’t despair! You can join any time.

If you aren’t ready to commit to 50,000 words, that’s also fine. Set yourself an ambitious writing goal along other lines. Maybe to write for 20 minutes per day. Maybe to write 1,000 words 5 days per week. Whatever feels like a stretch, and is a little scary but also intriguing.

The important thing is to write. The rest is really just details.

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who worked for a decade in the publishing industry, mostly writing for legal newsletters and magazines. She wrote about half a novel over the course of a year, writing 20 minutes daily during the workweek when she got coffee. If you’d like more individual attention than a group can provide, try a sample writing coaching session with Jennifer. Drop her a line at jalvey@jenniferalvey.com to schedule yours today!

Time To Yourself–What Every Stuck Lawyer/Writer Needs

I kind of miss my crappy commute from a decade ago. Even though DC denizens are a bunch of competitive assholes, including in traffic, that hour commute gave me time to myself. It’s one of the greatest gifts writers and other creatives can give themselves: time alone to just think.

Of course, writers aren’t the only ones who need time to themselves. But writers need it quite desperately, in a need-oxygen kind of way. I’m not talking about time to spend writing, but time to simply exist, without any visible, productive results. I’m talking about time to let your mind wander where it pleases.

woman dancing in living room alone
By time alone, I also don’t mean binge-watching something, or listening to a podcast, or even reading/listening to a book. None of those are inherently bad, mind you. They can be awesome, actually. But those activities don’t belong in your designated time alone.

man walking in misty, green forest
Time to yourself, without digital or physical friends, will fill your inspiration/idea well. Here’s what restores and invigorates many writers, including me:

  • Going alone for a leisurely walk somewhere new, where there are lots of interesting things to notice;
  • Sitting by a lake or creek, and listening to the water and wildlife sounds;
  • Hanging out on a porch, feet propped up and drink at hand, watching the world go by;
  • Hanging out on a park bench, doing the same;
  • Going to an exhibit by yourself, at your own pace, and noticing what draws your interest;
  • Going to a coffee shop, book store, mall, etc. to people watch (OK, eavesdrop!); or
  • Going to an art store, antique store, hardware store, boutique, or anywhere that the merchandise itself fascinates and excites you. Caveat: Just browse, ooooh, and aaaaah; no buying.

Sounds like a horrible waste of time, doesn’t it? How can you possibly take even 20 minutes for something like this, when your to-do list has a to-do list?

It’s the only way to hear yourself and what you think and feel, that’s how. Like that feeling of calm energy that comes after meditating, taking alone time gives back far more than the minutes it takes. By paying attention to your own unique interests and pulls, you connect more with your wellspring of inspiration. I don’t know anyone who can’t use more of that.

But Does It Work?

Here’s a way to see if this helps you. Rate your current energy level on that 1 to 10 scale. Then, 3 times this week, take at least 20 minutes to be alone and let your mind wander. Set your phone so that only true potential emergencies (children, parents, spouse, etc.) will alert.

[NOTE: Overbearing, anxious clients, bosses, and coworkers are NOT on this list. As a doctor friend of mine says, this is one of those “unless there’s arterial bleeding, they will live without you for a few minutes” boundaries.]

After a week, rate your level of energy for the past week. Did you notice any improvement, for any amount of time? Decline? Stasis?

If you didn’t see improvement, vary your alone-time activity, and the length of time you spend alone. Play with this tool until you feel some improvement. Or simply keep taking alone time a few times a week for 3 weeks, whichever is first.

Improvement doesn’t mean you suddenly have the inspiration to write your novel daily—though that would be fantastic! Improvement means you’re feeling a bit more curious, or you had a good idea for something (work or personal), or you maybe got some special pens and paper and are secretly plotting time to use them.

Writing and all other creative endeavors are marathons, not sprints. Giving yourself the gift of alone time is part of your ongoing training. The more time you can spend alone and hear your thoughts, and notice lots of details around you, the better your writing and creativity will get.

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who left law by getting a job writing and editing for a legal publication. She liked the publishing industry enough to hang around it for a decade or so. In addition to writing her blog, she also coaches lawyers who want to find a way to express their creative gifts, whether in their work or in their lives. Email her at jalvey@jenniferalvey.com if you’d like help with your own creative journey.

 

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Maybe You Really Are a Writer, Unhappy Lawyer

It may shock you that once upon a time, I would not claim the title of writer, even when I was literally being paid to write news and analysis stories for a legal publisher.

Such are the irrational fears and beliefs of many writers’ emotional landscapes.

In my head, “writers” were these magically cool unicorns who wrote fiction. Or possibly really funny essays. They certainly did not read cases and write up summaries of them. The probably didn’t write news analysis pieces, complete with interviews andwoman in office wearing black leather coat and pink accessories sources and all. If ever they had done those things, they were talented enough to move on quickly to something interesting, fun, lyrical.

You could say that I had some highly interesting ideas about being a writer. They were all pretty much complete garbage, and they also kept me feeling stuck and depressed.

What That Desire To Write Really Means

Here’s the thing I learned eventually: If you have some secret, unspoken, or even admitted desire to be a writer, you’re meant to pursue that.

Maybe that means you find a job as a writer. Or maybe you write outside of work. Or a combination. It doesn’t really matter, as far as being a writer is concerned.

The thing that makes you a writer is pretty simple: You write words. There’s no need to pick apart whether your words are good, or what’s your motivation to write, or whether you can make a living as a writer. If you want to write, and you write words, you are a writer.

Now, a lot of you may want to be a writer, but aren’t writing words at the moment. And you may think that means you don’t really want to be a writer. Maybe you even think that if you wanted to write badly enough, you just would; the fact that you aren’t writing regularly, or semi-regularly, is evidence you’re not meant to be a writer.

Well, sorry, you’re not off the hook.

As a group, writers are a sensitive bunch. (Ernest Hemingway is just a weird outlier.) That sensitivity is part of what makes writers who they are. Writers, like other artists, are the ones who see things differently than most, who feel things more intensely, and have a weird curiosity about oddball things. They are often very, very smart, too. They usually have a gift of deep insight. And they notice things that most people blast right past.

Of course, I cannot begin to list all the traits of a writer, because writers come in all kinds of odd and fascinating packages. So if I haven’t described you yet, please don’t say to yourself that you must not be a writer!

Why Aren’t You Writing?

A common part of the writer’s package is fear, and some highly unpleasant, or even traumatic, life experiences from childhood. If that’s true for you, the crap that happened to you before now may be silencing your voice.

Your law job may be silencing your voice. In fact, I’d place a small bet on that, and I don’t even know you.

The most likely culprit behind your lack of writing is some monster from your past or present, which has tricked you into believing you have nothing worthwhile to say. That’s complete bullshit, of course.

But if that realization alone doesn’t free you, it might be worth exploring the origins of that fear in your life, and unearthing the dynamics that keep you silent. Because now more than ever, we need voices to say the things that need saying.

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer and a writer, among other things. She coaches unhappy lawyers on getting started writing, along with finding the work that fulfills them, whether it’s writing or something else. You can schedule an appointment by emailing her at jalvey@jenniferalvey.com.

 

One idea per sentence, lawyers. Please.

Want to know a major source of bad legal writing? It’s deceptively simple: Lawyers cram too many ideas into one poor, overworked, run-on sentence. From this one writing sin flows most of the evils of bad legal writing.

The results are never pretty. While compound-complex sentences have their place, that place is not every single sentence in a 200-word paragraph.

wmd_flowWorse, overburdened sentences make your reader tune out and move on, if they possibly can—say, if they’re reading your blog post, or your article in a legal publication. There goes your marketing campaign!

If reading your writing is required, say by a judge or a colleague, your reader gets irritated and frustrated with you.

Making readers tune out, or irritating them, is not what you want to do.

What It Looks Like

Here’s an example of some iffy legal writing, in case you’re not sure what I’m railing about. Continue reading

5 Tips for Writing the Best Damned Lawyer Emails Ever

I’ve been in and around law for 25 years, and I’ve seen some epic emails. One, from opposing counsel, claimed that she needed to consult a Ouija board to determine if our team was going to produce an actual witness at the appointed time. Why she would say this, when one partner constantly canceled depositions 15 hours before their start time, I have no idea. genervte angestellte mit jubelnden chefBut I digress.

The point is, emails can make or break you. I’m not talking about the ones that you wouldn’t want to see on the front page of the paper. No, I’m talking about how to be memorable to clients and colleagues. You know, how to make an indelible impression.

Here are some of my best email tips. Incorporate them and see what happens!

  1. Don’t Respond to Emails for Days or Weeks. If you can’t bear to ignore emails from your really lucrative clients, OK. Do what you gotta do. But please, don’t respond to any other emails that inquire about non-billable projects or anything that isn’t a crisis for you. Not even to say that you are snowed under, and will get back to the sender in a couple days or weeks. In particular, do not respond to emails from underlings who need to know key information that only you possess, so that they can proceed with the work you asked them to do to meet the deadline you set for them. It is important to make them stalk you in the hallways, and spend hours waiting outside your office so they can talk to you for 3 minutes.
  2. When You Respond, Be Wordy and Overly Precise. Remember, you get paid by the hour, and it takes more time to write more words. If clients and others wanted to understand legal issues, they should have gone to law school. Since you’re a good person, though, you will help them by using a thesaurus, and explain that in the event of any dispute, disagreement, argument, conflict, or misunderstanding, etc., they should call you immediately and forthwith.
  3. Be Sure To Omit Any Context. The fact that it’s been a month since you last communicated about something is irrelevant. So too is the fact that your recipient may have moved on to something else, rather than obsessing daily about what has just morphed into a burning question for you. Just ask the question; they should be able to instantly recall all minutiae surrounding it. If they can’t, that is what the 13 emails back and forth about it are for.
  4. Social Niceties Are for Ninnies. Don’t waste precious pixels on greetings or closings. Polite inquiries about general wellbeing are also verboten. That’s the beauty of email over phone calls—you don’t need to waste all that time being fake nice. Just get right to the point. Your clients and colleagues aren’t paying you to love them.
  5. Hit Send When You’re Annoyed and Tired. This works particularly well when corresponding with those you don’t regularly see or interact with. After all, you know they meant to be difficult for no reason. You learned a long time ago that assuming the worst was the only sound way to proceed, and this situation definitely calls for it. Plus, you’re helping people out by pointing out their various mistakes.

(For all of you folks who want to break out of law, or for some inexplicable reason want better client and personal relations, you may need to adapt these tips really slowly. Most people hate change and need time to adjust to the new you.)

Have a question about writing? Contact Jennifer at jalvey@jenniferalvey.com.