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Justice Scalia on Writing Well: It takes time and sweat

Writing this for The Weekly Standard, I was struck by just how well-crafted were Scalia’s own speeches. With the good writers, a reader waits for a surprise—a deft choice of words, an illuminating metaphor, some shrewdly placed humor. Dip into Scalia Speaks and you’ll have many such surprises.


Justice Scalia was a terrific writer. And he thought about the craft, and what it requires. A short speech titled “Writing Well,” given to a group of legal writers who were giving him a lifetime achievement award, is fantastic.

In the speech, as recounted in the recently released book Scalia Speaks, Scalia said legal writing does not exist—not as a separate genre of writing, the way poetry and playwriting do. “Rather, I think legal writing belongs to that large, undifferentiated unglamorous category of writing known as nonfiction prose.” Meaning that if you’re good as a legal writer, you could be “equivalently good” as a writer of history or economics or theology. “Had he been a lawyer,” the justice said, “C.S. Lewis would have been a magnificent legal writer.”

Scalia learned from his law students at the University of Virginia Law School that there is no such thing as legal writing. What they lacked, he said, was “not the skill of legal writing but the skill of writing at all.” Nor did he think that skill could be taught. Scalia settled on trying to teach his students that there was “an immense difference between writing and good writing” and that it took “time and sweat to convert the former into the latter.”

The justice elaborated on what time and sweat meant in his case. During his first semester as a freshman at Georgetown College, he had an English composition professor who was “a damned-hard grader” and gave him some B minuses on his first papers—not what the recently matriculated college student Scalia was used to. The teacher gave weekend assignments, and for the rest of the weekends in that semester Scalia said he “devoted many nervous hours to writing and rewriting.” You can bet his grades got better.

Scalia thought there was such a thing as “writing genius.” It consists “of the ability to place oneself in the shoes of one’s audience; to assume only what they assume; to anticipate what they anticipate; to explain what they explained; to think what they must be thinking; to feel what they must be feeling.” A rare ability, Scalia knew.

Scalia closed his speech by observing that “a careless, sloppy writer has a careless, sloppy mind.” Such a writer is not really a writer, though the individual could become one. How? The Scalia way. With more time and sweat.