Legal Writing: Some Useful Fictions in Life

Vol. 39 No. 3


Bryan A. Garner (@BryanAGarner), president of LawProse Inc. (, is the author of many bestselling books, including Making Your Case: The Art of Persuading Judges (with Justice Antonin Scalia) and Garner’s Modern American Usage. He is the editor in chief of all current editions of Black’s Law Dictionary.

One of the most highly literate lawyers I’ve ever known was the late Judge Thomas Gibbs Gee of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. His understated literary flair made his opinions as quotable as those of any other judge on the federal bench. He seemed to have read everything: world history, military history, English literature, Texas history, federal law, and much else. In depth. He knew Quintilian and Shakespeare and Voltaire and Flaubert, and he could bring this knowledge to bear scintillatingly on any conversation.

One day I asked him how he had cultivated his extraordinary skill with words, and his answer surprised me:  “I’m really not very well read. In fact, I’ve always been behind the eight ball educationally. So I’ve spent a lot of time trying to make up for what I missed out on in my schooling.”

His words struck me as wise. There is practical wisdom behind them. How could such a truly well-read person consider himself to be ill-read and unknowledgeable? The answer is that he wasn’t comparing himself to other people, but rather to his own absolute standard of excellence. He had adopted a “personal fiction,” a kind of myth that helped him get ahead in life.

Ever since learning this lesson, I’ve thought that there are several personal myths worth adopting. Here are seven I’d recommend.

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