There are a few broad style of writing that regularly face criticism, not without justification. Academic writing is one of them. Another is so ruthlessly dismissed as impenetrable that it has its own description: legalese. It’s understandable. The fundamental nature of the writing makes it dense, thorough, and bloodless. But within the occupational impetus for the writing style lies a key to great nonfiction writing, at least for those authors who chose to properly leverage it. Legal writing shares some genes with the best of journalism. It presents facts and analyze them, then briskly, smartly, capably makes a case.
The first time I remember fully and properly taking note of Jeffrey Toobin’s talents was when he wrote about abortion. A former Assistant U.S. Attorney, Toobin addressed the supposedly touchy subject with an appealing certainty, an obvious and forceful belief that there was no need to be skittish about discussing it. He laid out the plain truth: it is constitutionally-protected medical procedure that millions of American women have had, not cavalierly but because they genuinely felt the need to do so. He finished, as his training would have it, with a compelling closing argument:
But as framed by Democrats and the President, the current debate about abortion—centered as it is around rape victims and the health exception—put women in the position of supplicants, seeking permission to end their pregnancies. Most people, fortunately, think there are circumstances where that permission should be granted. But true freedom is not freedom to ask permission—it’s freedom to make a decision. That’s what pro-choice really means, and it would be healthy for abortion-rights supporters to say so clearly and often.
I’d certainly read other articles from Toobin before that piece, but that was the cloud-breaking beam that illuminated the breadth of his skill. From there, I was ready to follow him nearly anywhere.
Luckily for me, Toobin tends to go to places and times that hold a certain fascination for me anyway. He wrote a dishy but factually serious books about the inner workings of the current Supreme Court and, most recently, a tremendously detailed history of the Patty Hearst saga. In each instance, Toobin locks in on his story, sharing telling details and occasionally deflating the puffed up myth-making of others with an expertly crafted wry aside. He lays out facts and shows how they add up to a greater truth, just like a good lawyer. And an even better writer.
Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “My Writers” tag.