November 2014 Bar Bulletin
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November 2014 Bar Bulletin

The Agent Who Didn't Like My Novel and How That Might Help My Legal Writing

By Aaron Riensche


Burying the lead. We've all done it. Legal writing is practically made for it.

We have a great point, the killer argument, the dispositive fact, the coup de grĂ¢ce. But we want to build up to it. We lay a foundation, set out the facts, copy and paste some rules statements, introduce the other side's arguments - in all their blissful unawareness of the ugly fate that awaits them. And then, bam!, somewhere in the middle pages, the gray doldrums where the black of Times New Roman starts fading into the white of 20-pound bond, we unleash it. Our winning argument springs forth, ready to grab readers by their throats and beat them over the head.

But are they awake? Did they make up their minds before they got there? Have they stopped caring? Did they even get that far?

A recent conversation about burying the lead reminded me of something that happened a few years ago. A friend of mine was kind enough to get a novel I had written into the hands of someone in publishing. I sent over the first 15 pages, because that is the most a publisher or agent will look at, and waited anxiously to hear how brilliant they were and how hungry she was to read more. The reality was a little different.

Her feedback was overall positive, but she had some harsh words for one line, which was apparently childish and amateurish. She concluded by saying she wished she could help and added some words about what she looks for in the first 15 pages (and impliedly did not find in mine): "It has to be tight and polished - the setting really vibrant, the characters really strong, the writing really striking - to get someone to read to the 16th and 17th page."

I dug up that email recently when, on two occasions, coworkers told me I had buried the lead in a brief. One of these criticisms was at the micro level; the strongest sentence in a key paragraph was the last one. The other was macro; the brief was good, but it took me a while to get to the point.

This reminded me of the first-15-pages email because, while novels and legal briefs involve very different writing, there are some parallels when it comes to beginnings that don't grab the reader's attention. The problem, in both cases, is often that the writer knows about all the great stuff that's coming, but the reader does not.

The novelist has plotted out a series of startling twists and turns that are well worth the wait. The legal writer has some great points that will be more impactful once we get through the background. But the reader - not knowing about all the brilliance to come - has to rely on faith and hope that all this wading through early drudgery is worth the trouble.

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