LawProse Lesson #342: The art of asking questions.

LawProse Lesson #342: The art of asking questions.

I’m working on three big writing projects right now: a book on one aspect of 18th-century intellectual history; a biography of a mid-20th-century artist—a refugee from Hitler’s Germany; and a U.S. Supreme Court brief.

Those are three very different genres, but the techniques are similar. You ask pertinent questions and embark on a quest for the best possible answers. Asking questions is also a way of having a conversation with your readers.

It reminds me of my own friend and mentor, the late Charles Alan Wright. His motto was that the mark of a genuine scholar is never to sit idly by while an answerable question goes unanswered. He wrote two frequently cited books: The Law of Federal Courts and Federal Practice and Procedure. You can pick up either book and feel as if he’s talking directly to you.

You’re a writer not because you have something to say but because you know how to bring about new thoughts by asking questions and finding good answers. These thoughts would never occur to you if you didn’t ask the questions. You’re not drawing on a reservoir of knowledge as much as engaging in an activity that brings about knowledge—a whole succession of unforeseen arguments, essays, letters, and even articles, stories, and plays.

Lawyers must understand that writing well involves asking and answering pertinent questions.

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