Monkey Sees . . .

Do you find that your writing style is unconsciously or otherwise influenced by what you’re currently reading? Especially if what you’re reading happens to be a long, enjoyable discourse? Do you think that instead of being a relative fixity, your writing style is actually prone to little perturbations generated by the writing you’ve most recently digested? Have you noticed that in addition to whatever trend your writing follows over a long period of time, its form is also subject to temporary deviations from trend, much like the business cycles that economies go through?

I think you’ve surmised by now what my answers are to these queries. While I have a strongly held ideal of what writing is supposed to accomplished (however short particular specimens of my writing fall from that standard) and, like everybody else, a relatively stable stylistic repertoire, I’m surprised time and again by how much my writing is influenced by my current readings. For example, I’ve been on a binge of books-by-lawyers recently: I’ve just finished a few tomes on copyright, devoured Adam Winkler‘s work on the interpretation of the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms, thoroughly enjoyed Noah Feldman‘s narrative history on the constitutional theories developed by four of FDR’s Supreme Court justices, and, as I write this, am in the process of critically reading the provocative Rights Gone Wrong: How Law Corrupts the Struggle for Equality.

What’s the effect of imbibing all these books? Needless to say, I’m still no legal scholar. But I am now strangely inclined to passive-voice sentences packed with subordinate clauses — and interrupted with dashes displaying “acerbic wit” at play. (I’m presently also of the opinion that the law is not only of paramount importance to the workings of a developed society, but also that legal practice is irresistibly invigorating and lawyers, utterly indispensable. My impressionability is the topic for altogether different post, however.)

The common ways in which legal decisions are described in the passive third person, in which qualifications for statements intrude with high frequency and opinionated arguments are regularly, and confidently, advanced seem to have bleached, however temporarily, into my own writing. Check out this post, for instance, which was not written with the idea in mind that it should sound like the books I’ve recently read. Nonetheless, it came out a bit like that, no?

This isn’t a bad development. One can do much worse than articulating one’s thoughts like a law professor (and certainly getting paid like one would be highly satisfying, but again, that’s a subject for another day). Nonetheless, it’s a bit mind-boggling, and perhaps slightly embarrassing, that one can be subconsciously influenced so easily.


This concludes Round 3 of the Guessing Game. Hope both you and I did well!

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2 Responses to Monkey Sees . . .

  1. I totally do that. I also repeat myself. On a given day/secion of writing, I sometimes realize that I’ve used the same adjective, for example, 3 times – the next day it’s on to a different “favorite word for the day!” Yes…editing is necessary!!!

  2. Pico Iyer has a nice essay out on writing long sentences. The essay is titled “The Writing Life: The point of the long and winding sentence”, and it can be found here

    Re: Iyer’s curt response to his editor, Diane Athill, in her role as an editor, writes that, “an editor must never expect thanks (sometimes they come, but they must always be seen as a bonus). We must always remember that we are only midwives — if we want praise for progeny we must give birth to our own” (Stet: En Editor’s Life, p. 38,

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