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By: Jamie Collins
Happy Valentine’s Day, TPS readers! In honor of today’s low fat, chocolate loving paralegal holiday (hey – let’s just pretend it’s all low fat, so long as it’s brown or white…okay…zero guilt) we’re extending a personal invitation your way. Yep, that’s right, an invitation to each and every one of the aspiring paralegal writers out there. Yes…you! Don’t act like we aren’t talking to you because if you possess a legitimate writing ability and the desire to give it a good faith paralegal try, we’re talking to you!
If you think you’d love to write, read this article, decide if it’s for you, and if the answer is “oh yeah”, then contact Jamie at firstname.lastname@example.org to suggest a few topics you’d like to write about which haven’t already been featured on The Paralegal Society.
So…sit back…pop a few of those delicious, low fat, paralegal chocolates (remember, brown or white chocolates = no guilt) and ponder your future semi-fame…
Originally printed in KNOW, The Magazine for Paralegals: http://www.paralegalknowledge.com
Are you an aspiring paralegal writer? Let me rephrase that — would you like to be an aspiring paralegal writer? Are you waiting for the paralegal clouds to part and the legal writing gods to welcome you into the coveted world of the legal writers’ kingdom? Perhaps you’ve always enjoyed writing and the title of this article caught your eye, but you can’t say you are “aspiring” to write, per se, at this juncture. Perhaps you should! Answer these six simple questions to determine if writing is for you:
1. Have you always possessed a natural talent for the written word?
2. Do you enjoy writing papers for classes?
3. Have you received high A’s on nearly every paper you’ve ever written?
4. Do people often compliment your writing…and often?
5. Do you enjoy writing and working to lure people into your written work?
6. Have you ever pondered writing in a professional capacity?
I’d say if you answered yes to two or more of these questions, then chances are, you may be an aspiring writer. It’s something you should at least consider.
If you would like to write in a professional capacity, but feel intimidated or clueless about how to get started, you probably find yourself cloaked under a false misconception about delving into the writing world. Perhaps that’s why you haven’t tried it yet? Don’t make the mistaken assumption that new writers just “charge” out of the gate, charging past all the other writers with all the glory and full pomp and circumstance of a Triple Crown Winner at the Belmont Stakes…all, of course… in a majestic display of poise and confidence, kicking up dirt behind them, as they lap past the competition in the writing derby and dash off to inspire the world. Let me assure you – that’s not the case. The fast track may be for a select few writing thoroughbreds, but for everyone else, it’s a little more like the story of Seabiscuit — the infamous race horse who liked to pull forward from the clear back of the pack (way back), the end of the charge, propelled by a fury of guts and desire, and making up ground one carefully placed foothold at a time. It’s more like that. Don’t allow the majestic thoroughbreds of the writing world keep you from honing your inner Seabiscuit if you think writing may be for you.
I’ll never forget the first time I decided to swallow my self-induced writing fear. I officially volunteered myself for my first “real” writing gig, which consisted of an article for a monthly newsletter to be published by a leading paralegal education group. It was a paralegal pointers article that would be bequeathed upon paralegals from all across the country via their in-boxes. Cool, right? I was excited about the endeavor and quite pleased that I had taken the initiative to ask for a writing opportunity…and even more pleased they had acquiesced, until I made a critical, novice writer’s error. What error, you ask?
I decided to peruse the sample articles sent to me for review by the publisher. They had sent these past articles to me in anticipation of my future creation of brilliance and that’s when it happened — I read the past writers’ bios. Bad move! Don’t read the bios if you are an aspiring writer. They are as intimidating as hell. You’re new and you’ve never written a single professional piece in your life. The worst thing you can do is read the bios of other writers that came before you. Why? Because these “other” writers all have a way of absolutely and completely glorifying themselves to the utmost degree of human possibility, using a vast array of articulate and well-crafted words to portray themselves as a gift to the writing world. After all, they are “writers.” They clearly have a gift. My advice? Don’t read the bios. It serves no purpose, unless you really like psyching yourself out before a big endurance marathon.
If you would like to begin writing professionally, I would recommend that you reach out to the person in charge of your local association’s paralegal newsletter, to an educational institution that produces a monthly newsletter or a reputable (and I mean reputable) blog. This will provide you with a comfortable starting place. It will allow you to begin to build your writing platform (fan base) and will get your name out amongst your peers in the legal community. So, approach one of these sources and see if they will allow you to write an article for them. Trust me – they have writing spots to fill and they’ll probably be thrilled to hear from you. Don’t be intimidated…just ask. What do you have to lose? You don’t write now, so you only have something to gain. Make the approach.
Once you have found a suitable “victim”…strike that…I mean opportunity, the fun begins! It’s time to write. I have put together a list of tips for new writers to consider when undertaking their first writing endeavor. Here goes:
Inspiration. The first thing you, as a new writer, must find is inspiration. All writers need inspiration. Most likely, you will need to propose a topic in order to land your first writing opportunity. You should try to come up with a topic that you feel “fully” inspired to write about: perhaps something you would like to research to learn more about, a topic you feel doesn’t get sufficient coverage in the industry or an area you feel strongly or passionately about and a topic that you know really well. You need inspiration. You must find it. If you attempt to write an article about a less than inspired topic, your work will be just that — less than inspiring. You have to be connected to the topic and know it well to be able to do it any justice. Personal inspiration is the key. Start out by writing about what you know best.
Expectations. You need to determine what the expectations are for your piece. Here are some key questions you may want to ask your editor: (1) Who is my demographic audience, i.e., experienced, new, young, old? (2) What is my word count? (3) Do you have a preference as to my writing style, i.e., academic, creative, factual, etc. (4) When is my deadline? Ask these questions to determine your editor’s expectations.
Writing Style. The next thing you, as a new writer will need to find is a bit more challenging. You will need to “find” your writing style. For some writers, this is a natural talent and one it flows effortlessly. Others approach their stylistic writing styles as a writer’s buffet. They try a little of this and a little of that until they find something they like and they serve it to their readers. There are also the “wanderers,” the writers who seem to dabble with their writing styles. They write in an academic tone for one piece and an entertaining one the next. I would say the third class of writers is rare. Don’t expect to feel confident in your writing style for quite some time. Even the Triple Crown Winners struggle with this one. It is something you will find the more you write. You should be true to yourself and write what feels comfortable for you, and that will become your writing style.
Be Confident and Be You. The best writing advice I ever received came from an article written by Chere Estrin (my personal mentor and a major player in the paralegal education/writing industry) had posted on her blog, The Estrin Report. The article was actually about speaking, not writing, but it really caught my eye and has become my most coveted piece of writing advice to this day. When in need of a reminder, I pull it out and read it. This is what it says:
“You’re unsure about the value of your message. Little else can make us as anxious as being unsure if others want to hear what we have to say. I’m going to be straight with you: make sure you’re talking about something they want to hear. Know your audience. Do your factual research. Make sure that you really are giving value. Too may speakers talk above or below their audiences; provide clichés and old or boring material. They don’t help the audience to see how the material is valuable in their lives. If you think your message is content free, you may be right.
When you know that you’re giving tremendous assistance to your audiences, your mood will soar. This goes back to the giving vs. getting issue: If you’ve got value to give but you’re still more focused on getting approval, fear will nail you. But giving great value because you can’t wait to give it? You’ll be unstoppable.” (Chere Estrin, The Estrin Report, www.estrinlegaled.typepad.com, 2011).
Follow Chere’s advice and you’ll shake your writing fear! Be yourself. Write like you. Don’t try to imitate others. Pick a great topic and run with it like a Triple Crown Winner at the Belmont Stakes, my friend. Charge out of that writer’s gate!!
The Outline. Once you have an inspired topic, you simply start writing. I like to prepare an outline of bullet points or key talking points. This helps me to focus the piece and provides me with clarity and an overall vision for where I’m headed. By listing the main ideas out, in writing, I can typically judge in once glance, whether my ideas are cohesive and all belong within the piece. There are times I rewrite various bullet points or remove them entirely. If they are good inspired thoughts, you can use them in a future piece if they aren’t well-suited for the current piece. My outlines are basic and simple.
If I am writing a top ten pointers article, I list out a topic or thought for each of the ten main points. If I am writing in more of a narrative format, then I typically jot down some key points I want to include or major points to emphasize. Once I am pleased with my outline (again, nothing elaborate, just very basic and simple), I sit down at my computer and start typing out my thoughts in a free flow method. I allow myself to write about each of the points on my outline. Don’t worry about editing yourself as you type unless you see yourself going “way” off the tracks. Allow the words to flow, as they may lead you to other (and possibly better) ideas.
Editing. Once you have your piece written in its entirety in a rough form, it’s time to begin your edits. I spend a painstaking amount of time editing my work. I edit and re-edit many, many times, until I feel the piece reads the way I want it to and I have covered all of my basic points that I wanted to present.
I highly recommend that you not only edit on the screen, but also edit on paper as well. Editing on paper is essential. When you print off your work and read it on an actual paper that you are holding in your hands, you become the reader. This helps you to see the piece the same way a reader will. There are many things I think read just fine on the screen, but as soon as I see them in black and white typed out on a paper that I’m holding in my hands, I make changes — and lots of them. You must edit from the standpoint of the reader. Edit and reedit your work and be sure to edit on paper.
Pseudo editors. Once you feel you have finished your final edits, you should then give the piece to at least one or two other people to read (1) for any grammatical or typographical errors; and (2) to make sure it reads well… do you need to take anything out or add something else in place of one of your key points? Is it a well written, cohesive piece? These “pseudo editors” will be your first readers, so be open to their suggestions and take stock in their advice.
Letting go. It can be difficult to let go of a piece because you become so personally attached to it. Who know, perhaps I’m just a weirdo, but it’s always hard to release a piece for publication. It’s like giving away a small part of oneself. I feel like I could always polish my work more, make it better, more interesting or stronger, so it’s hard to know when enough is enough. Trust me — there is a point when enough is enough. When in doubt if it’s time to let go, turn to your “pseudo editors” to see if they think deem your piece ready for publication. Then listen to them and let it go.
Listen to feedback. Let’s face it – you’re only going to be a successful paralegal writer if people want to read your work. You have to offer readers something of value, lure them into your writing and keep them interested, so they will want to follow your future work. Feedback from readers is an invaluable tool. If you can post your article (with permission from your publisher, of course) on a social media forum, it will allow you to interact with your readers. Be gracious to anyone who takes the time to share a comment or tell you they enjoyed your work. Befriend your readers. Listen to feedback. Grow your fan base.
Keep an Inspiration Notebook. It’s a great idea to keep a writer’s notebook on hand and readily accessible. This notebook is a place where you can jot down all of your topic ideas and brilliant, random thoughts (and if you really are a writer – there will be random, brilliant thoughts – and lots of them). Do I often get out of bed before falling asleep at night to jot down a brilliant idea? Yes. It’s helpful to have all of your thoughts and ideas in one place. You’re only $3.00 away from a writer’s supply kit, readers!! Buy a notebook and start jotting down your brilliant ideas today.
Hone your skills. You should continually work to improve your writing techniques, skills and vocabulary. You should constantly work to expand your writing horizons through new opportunities. This helps you not only to grow as an aspiring writer, but to grow your readership. The more you write, the better you will become at it and the more people will follow your work, in theory. Isn’t that the whole point?
If you have always been interested in paralegal writing or this article sparked an interest, buy yourself a notebook, reach out to your local paralegal association or some other paralegal-related organization, institution, school or reputable blog and land yourself a writing gig! Now go hone your inner Seabiscuit, aspiring paralegal writers. Glory awaits. I’ll see you at the gate.
“What I like in a good author is not what he says, but what he whispers.”
– Logan Pearsall Smith, 1865-1946
“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.”
– Mark Twain
“The original writer is not one who imitates nobody, but one whom nobody can imitate.”
(Jamie’s personal favorite)
– Francis Rene de Chateaubreand, 1768-1848