Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Using Flow to Assess Persuasiveness

Non-writing attorneys often don't know what to look for to assess the persuasiveness of writing. Is it not self-evident? Persuasive writing persuades more. But more than what? An attorney wanting to assess the merits of potential ghostwriters could accurately judge the comparative persuasiveness of briefs arguing the same position. Although I have never heard of an attorney comparing writers in this way, the method is powerful, where your choices are limited to a few ghostwriters. If you try to assess persuasiveness without a control, the halo effect will bias your estimate by your position’s tenability. The easier the position to defend, the more persuasive the writing will appear.

Absent a controlled experiment, an attorney hiring a ghostwriter must isolate some persuasive characteristics of writing, rather than introspect his personal persuasion. Of all writing's directly perceptible attributes, the most informative about the effectiveness of the writing as such is its sense of flow. Flow means that the reader is informed of the relationship between the sentences without unneeded cues interrupting his thoughts. Flow is the major part of Clarity and an important instrumentality of Concision and Euphony. Flow concerns managing transition, but it is undermined by a surfeit of interrupting transitional terms.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Ghostwriting on Contingency

If your ghostwriter is sure of his skill and your case's merit, shouldn't he accept payment on contingency? Whether contingency payment is a good idea for you as customer depends on how much control over the product you want to cede to your writer. If you insist on exercising your right of control over content and style, then you cannot reasonably expect your ghostwriter to accept a contingency over which you exercise the greater control. If you are a lawyer, you will not want to give up your right of control, although if you made a wise choice for ghostwriter, you ought to follow his recommendations in most instances.

On the other hand, everyone responds to incentives. A professional may think he does his best regardless of the specific incentives, but this is illusion or self-deception. Making a minor part of the fee contingent provides an incentive for best performance, without impairing the ghostwriter's disinterest in the content.

What part of the fee do we perceive as significant but minor? From social practices that involve ascertaining a small but significant part — from tithing to tipping — treating 15% + - 5% of the fee as contingent should have a salutary effect.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

What makes some good writing difficult to read?

If you listen to exponents of the "plain English" school, you would infer there are two ultimate factors that determine the level of difficulty of a piece of writing: inherent difficulty of the subject matter and amount of artificial complexity imposed by bad writing. Hence, the common advice that writing should be as difficult as the subject matter requires but no more.

Complexity in writing is more complicated. A writer tailors his writing for his audience by modifying the three ultimate factors' weights. While submitting to Concision's pre-eminence, legal writing places great weight on Clarity. Concision and Clarity eventually conflict, and the writer will settle such disputes more often in favor of Clarity when writing a legal brief, more often for Concision in blog writing.

Overselling Clarity ignores the reader's motivation, whether the motivation to read as many words as the prolix writer adds or any part of a dull-sounding, uneuphonious writing. The weights that the writer should place on Clarity or against Concision and Euphony depend on the intended readers' motivation. An audience's motivation remains important despite its captivity, since reading can be more or less thorough, more or less sympathetic, and part of this adjustment occurs outside the reader's awareness. Still, motivation becomes less important, and with it, the writing Virtues that drive reader motivation, Concision and Euphony.

Readers call writing difficult to read when they prefer more Clarity. But writing becomes less clear not only when the subject matter is difficult or flaws conceal meaning. Writing also becomes less clear because Clarity compromises with Euphony and Concision.

What is the greatest writing virtue of them all?

Writing skill consists of three virtues: Clarity, Concision, and Euphony. In legal brief writing, most writers would rank the virtues in that order. But clarity is paramount in legal writing not primarily as a writing skill. Broad clarity depends primarily on what you say rather than how you say it, and achieving broad clarity depends most on knowing the law, learning the research, and formulating precise arguments. This broad, foundational clarity is defeated by the predominant writing method in law, assembling scraps of information. Better writing won't save the brief drafted by these flawed compositional methods.

This equivocation about clarity's scope allows panaceaists to oversell Clarity. Once you separate clarity in conceptualization from pure writing Clarity, it is not chairman of the writing virtues. The honor of centrality belongs to Concision. First, Concision is most aligned with the basic function of writing. A given written work is first and foremost an act of information compression, as rarely do we communicate propositions lacking alternative means of transmission or discovery. The goal is to convey as much as is relevant as efficiently as possible. Second, Clarity is overvalued not only because of the confusion about its source but also because of the marketability of its pedagogy. Using many words, most anyone can make an idea clear, provided he understands it. Concision and Clarity both cooperate and conflict because you achieve Concision by eliminating the obvious — that which, if included, would only marginally clarify. Efforts focused on Clarity render still worse a verbose work, too boring to read.