Monday, July 21, 2008

the law for the laity

I actually hate the term "laity," (or "masses"), because it's what faux populist elitists use to refer Everyone Else. But whatever, I'll use it anyway. Today, I write about all those books you law professors write for general audiences.

Here's some guidelines, as I have been reading several of them:

1. Footnotes are for law reviews. Use endnotes, and only for truly abstruse ideas that cannot be explained in-text.

2. And so for that matter, don't write anything that is too abstruse. This is a general audience book. I am not saying that you should dumb your book down. But if you find yourself using jargon-laced language or unable to distill an argument or theory into common language, you either don't know your audience, are writing the wrong book, or probably both.

3. Yes, there's certain terms, definitions, and ideas that are in the exclusive domain of the law. But they can be explained in common English language! I am making up examples here, but if you can't explain mens rea or res ipsa loquitur or hell, the dormant Commerce Clause in language that a college-educated person can't understand, then you are an awful writer and bad translator of Big important Ideas. I wonder if this is why legal histories are the most popular--in trying to convey law as a comprehensible narrative, those innumerable biographies of Supreme Court justices and inner workings and The Most Important Cases In History are great examples of how one should write about the law. Even a complicated idea can be told in a paragraph in which the sentences connect to one another expressing a coherent story, er, argument.

4. Read Strunk and White and Longman's Guide to English Usage and Marilyn Hacker's A Writer's Reference. Please, please, please read these.

5. I am not referring to professors who have sent me review copies. In fact, I am really happy to exclude them from my list of complaints. But I've been reading over some of old books. Eeesh.