Thoughts on Legal Writing from the Greatest of Them All: Toni Morrison
Chloe Anthony Wofford Morrison, better known as Toni Morrison, was one of the most prolific novelists and beloved figures of our time. Morrison authored 11 novels and numerous children’s books and other essays during her storied career. She was also an editor at Random House and a long-time faculty member at Princeton University.
In her novels, Morrison seamlessly intertwined the mundane, myth, and magic to paint an unflinching picture of slavery and its legacy. In 1993, she became the first African American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. When awarding her the Nobel, the Swedish Academy cited her “novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import,” through which she animated “an essential aspect of American reality.”
In 2012, Morrison was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Her works garnered not only critical success but commercial success as well, frequently landing her on the New York Times best-seller list and Oprah Winfrey’s book club list.
Throughout her storied career, Morrison participated in numerous interviews and provided insight into her views on writing. In 1993, she sat down with Elissa Schappell and Claudia Brodsky Lacourwith for the 134th interview in the Paris Review’s “The Art of Fiction” series. Morrison’s advice was aimed largely at creative writers. But legal writers can benefit from her guidance. In this column, we focus on Morrison’s advice on writing from the Paris Review interview — and apply Morrison’s advice to legal writing.
Know How You Work Best
One of the most important pieces of advice Morrison imparted to her students is that “they need to know when they are at their best, creatively.” This requires some introspection. Writers need to ask themselves these questions: “What does the ideal room look like? Is there music? Is there silence? Is there chaos outside or is there serenity outside? What do I need in order to release my imagination?” Understanding the environments in which you’re most productive will help you get the most out of your time when you sit down to write.
Morrison famously began writing before dawn. When asked why she started writing so early in the day, Morrison explained that it “began out of necessity.” Morrison had small children, and, as most parents can understand, she took advantage of the tranquility to get her thoughts on paper before her children awoke. As her children grew older and that necessity waned, however, Morrison’s habit of getting up early became her choice. As she put it, “I am not very bright or very witty or very inventive after the sun goes down.”
As for pre-writing rituals, Morrison at first didn’t think she had one. After a conversation with another writer, though, Morrison recalled that she’d always drink a cup of coffee while watching the sun rise. As she said, “[w]ell, that’s a ritual.” Rituals, to Morrison, are “preparation to enter a space that I can only call ‘nonsecular.’” Pre-writing rituals, no matter how minor, prime writers’ minds to enter a creative space. For Morrison, the sunrise signaled the transition. Being there before the light arrives, she acknowledged, “enable[d] [her] in some sense.”
Morrison preferred to write with a pencil — a “Dixon Ticonderoga number two soft” to be exact. This method may seem foreign to those of us who rely on keystrokes to put words on a page. Yet, whether it be writing with a pencil before dawn or typing over lunch, you’ll know when you’re at your best.
Aspiring writers may have an ideal writing environment in mind. Creating that environment is a different story. The truth is that as lawyers and legal professionals, our ability to solely focus on writing is hampered by the day-to-day. Meetings, phone calls, and urgent emails interrupt our focus. To finish a work, we must adapt and return to writing.
When asked about her ideal writing routine, Morrison described nine uninterrupted days when she never had to leave the house. She would have “huge tables” to work on, where she could spread her materials out as she wrote. But even for a writer of Morrison’s acclaim, she never experienced this ideal scenario. Instead, she indicated that she usually ended up with nothing more than a small spot on her desk, surrounded by “life, documents, letters, requests, invitations, [and] invoices.” Nine interrupted hours were unattainable; Morrison “always had a nine-to-five job.” So instead she had “to write either in between those hours, hurriedly, or spend a lot of weekend and predawn time.”
To overcome the disorder of her work environment, Morrison explained, she’d compensate by “substituting compulsion for discipline.” When something was “urgently there,” she’d “move everything aside and write for sustained periods of time.” As she said, “If you know it really has come, then you have to put it down.” She’d do that “on scraps of paper, in hotels on hotel stationery, in automobiles.”
This was her way of adapting to less-than-ideal circumstances. Although this exact remedy might not be available to all of us, successful writers do their best with the hand they’re dealt. The ideal writing environment might never manifest itself. But by finding ways to adapt, you can still produce writing of the quality you thought could only come from an ideal set of circumstances.
Don’t Read Your Writing Out Loud Until It’s Finished
As we work through a draft, a common tool is to read your work, or parts of it, out loud. Morrison, however, said that she didn’t “trust writing that is not written.” She never read her writing out loud before it was published. Morrison didn’t “trust performance.” To her, the focus should be on writing, “for the reader who doesn’t hear anything” as they read. To do so, Morrison observed, a writer “has to work very carefully with what is in between the words.” What’s not said is just as — if not more — important than what is. To convey the intended message to the reader, the rhythm and measure of writing are just as effective as the words on the page. Morrison noted that “it is what you don’t write that frequently gives what you do write its power.”
This may seem counterintuitive to those of us who read out loud as a step in the editing process. But Morrison’s advice is to put yourself in the reader’s shoes. Will a reader do the same? Unlikely. The key, then, is to make sure that the words on the page present the intended image when read in silence. Otherwise, Morrison advised, you “could get a response that might make [you] think it was successful when it wasn’t at all.”
Rewrite, Revise, but Don’t Fret
Revising our work is daunting. We grow attached to the writing we toiled to create. It can become difficult to excise portions. But we can’t hold on to everything in a first draft. Morrison advised aspiring writers to learn where the line between revising and fretting lies.
She conceded that she’ll rework a paragraph as long as she can to get the desired effect. She recalled revising, or rewriting, a single paragraph “six times, seven times, [or even] thirteen times.” “But there’s a line between revision and fretting, just working it to death,” said Morrison. And when you’re fretting over a piece of writing because it’s not working, then “it needs to be scrapped.”
In a January 2014 interview with the National Endowment for the Arts Magazine, Morrison clarified that unlike a medical problem such as a failing kidney, the editing process is in one’s hands. Thus, feelings like shame during the process are useless. Rather, Morrison thought that a writer should imagine revision like a lab experiment. When an experiment fails, the scientist doesn’t get give up and run out of the lab. She suggested instead that writers must “identify the procedure and what went wrong and then correct it.”
Morrison explained that these stumbles are a crucial part of growing as a writer. She analogized the experience to a musician “hitting the wrong note.” Musicians can’t simply leave the stage; they must “make something out of the error, do a really powerful creative.” If that’s not possible, the benefit of writing is that “you can always write and erase and do it over.”
So next time you’re poring over a sentence, paragraph, or chapter for the umpteenth time desperately trying to find a way to make it work, chances are you should scrap it. But don’t fret because it’s gone. Learn from that failure, like a scientist would in a lab, and move on. Morrison thought you’ll be thankful in the long run.
Find the Right Editor
Writing is seldom an individual endeavor for legal professionals. An editor’s role in the process is critical to producing a quality piece of work. Morrison, an editor herself for 20 years, believed that a good editor “makes all the difference.” A good editor is like a “priest or psychiatrist; if you get the wrong one, then you’re better off alone.” She explained that finding a good editor is a rarity, but one is worth searching for, and “you always know when you have one.”
What makes a good editor? Morrison said that a good editor “know[s] what not to touch” and “ask[s] all the questions you would have asked yourself had there been the time.” Good editors are “cool” and “dispassionate,” able to point out the spots the writer knows are weak but couldn’t find a way to improve. Morrison never thought that compliments from an editor were helpful. She found instead that the best editors are able to identify that place of weakness and “sometimes make suggestions” that she could use to strengthen the written word.
Morrison strongly believed that the relationship between writer and editor is crucial for success. When that relationship is built on “some trust,” and “some willingness to listen, remarkable things can happen.” Timing is important, too. Morrison said that if you don’t have the editor at the beginning of the project, then “you almost can’t have one later.” The editor must be there through the writing process to understand your voice and the project. As you begin writing, seek out editors who’re willing to listen and trust. According to Morrison, you won’t regret it.
But if You Can’t Find One, Be Your Own Best Editor
Knowing how to critique one’s work is an invaluable skill for writers. Morrison always told her creative-writing students that they need to learn how to read their own work. This doesn’t mean that you should “enjoy it because you wrote it.” Rather, the most effective way to read your own work is to “go away from it, and read it as though it’s the first time you’ve seen it.” Approaching it from this perspective prevents the writer from “get[ting] all involved in [their] thrilling sentences and all that.”
Morrison recalled a time when she stepped away at the end of a summer from a project she was very impressed with, but she couldn’t return to it until winter. When she did revisit what she had written in the summer, she thought it was “terrible” and “ill-conceived.”
What bothered her wasn’t that she wrote something beneath her standards, but that she thought it was so good at the time. “And that is scary because then you think it means you don’t know.” But by stepping away and reviewing her writing anew, Morrison was able to evaluate her work. If it helps greats like Morrison, finding the time to step away and revisit a draft with fresh eyes will be worthwhile for lawyers as well.
The Legal Writer continues in the next edition of the Journal with advice for legal writers from the greats, lawyers and non-lawyers alike.
Gerald Lebovits ([email protected]), an acting Supreme Court justice in Manhattan, is an adjunct at Columbia, Fordham, and NYU law schools. For his research he thanks Adam Drake (Fordham University School of Law), his judicial fellow.
 Margalit Fox, Toni Morrison, Towering Novelist of the Black Experience, Dies at 88, NY Times, Aug. 6 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/06/books/toni-morrison-dead.html.
 Interview by Elissa Schappell & Claudia Brodsky Lacour, Paris Review, with Toni Morrison, in Princeton, N.J., https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/1888/the-art-of-fiction-no-134-toni-morrison (1993) (last visited Aug. 13, 2020).
 Telephone Interview by Rebecca Sutton, National Endowment for the Arts Magazine, with Toni Morrison, https://www.arts.gov/NEARTS/2014v4-art-failure-importance-risk-and-experimentation/toni-morrison (Jan. 2014) (last visited Aug. 14, 2020).
 See Schappell & Lacour supra note 10.