Book Review: Guthrie’s Guide to Better Legal Writing

Several times each month, we are pleased to republish a recent book review from the Canadian Law Library Review (CLLR). CLLR is the official journal of the Canadian Association of Law Libraries (CALL/ACBD), and its reviews cover both practice-oriented and academic publications related to the law.

Guthrie’s Guide to Better Legal Writing. By Neil Guthrie. Toronto: Irwin Law, 2018. xviii, 182p. Includes bibliographic references and index. ISBN 978-1-55221-472-5 (softcover) $55.00. ISBN 978-1-55221-473-2 (PDF) $55.00.

Reviewed by Nicholas Jobidon
Professeur de droit public
École nationale d’administration publique
In CLLR 43:3

Neil Guthrie’s Guide to Better Legal Writing started out as a series of emailed writing tips to the author’s old colleagues. These emails were eventually transposed into an advice column at slaw.ca before being grouped together in book form. These early emails themselves began, as the author puts it in the preface, “out of frustration” at the deliberately incomprehensible jargon-filled style of writing often favoured by lawyers. Instead, the author advocates the use of a simpler, more direct (and sometimes more traditional) language.

The book is mainly concerned with legal writing for a broader audience, such as writing blog posts, but also periodically touches on legal drafting. The book offers advice divided in four sections:

  • Get Writing! This section covers general writing advice on how to write for a lay audience, why writing is important, word choice, layout, and the importance and prevalence of social media.
  • Words Used and Abused. This section contains specific advice on some words that are often misused, that should not be used at all, or that often give rise to confusion. It also includes the aptly titled section “Miscellaneous little things that annoy me” (p 94).
  • Grammar and Punctuation. This section delves into the details of adverbs, apostrophes, word endings, and many more.
  • Your Queries Answered. Since the book was once a series of emails and of blog posts, the author received various questions. The correlative answers are printed here.

Overall, the book is reminiscent of grammar books; an apt alternative title could have been Guthrie’s Elements of Legal Style. One sometimes feels like a pupil when faced with pages-long tables of similar-sounding words that the author does not like or cringes when he sees misused. The bulk of the book deals with particular rules and exceptions, and many attempts at identifying correct usage in Canada between American and British traditions (the author confesses to a British bias). This amount of detail sometimes makes it difficult to keep in mind the more fundamental message about clear, simple writing.

The tone of the book deliberately clashes with its arid subject matter and meshes instead with its origin. It is surprisingly informal, as befits a series of emails or blog posts, which allows the author to go on light-hearted (but pernickety) rants about some common misuse or bad lawyerly habit without antagonising the reader. Its conversational tone makes this book entertaining, and the reader may hope for a chance to take the author out for a beer. This is a high bar for a grammar book!

I would recommend the book to anyone actively trying to freshen up their prose, as well as those invested in writing blog posts or other outreach. Lawyers who are just starting out in the profession would certainly do well to heed Guthrie’s advice, but pressure from our conservative line of business would probably make that difficult. This is why the initial title of the book, Please Don’t Write Like a Lawyer, did not make the cut!

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