Is Writing Longhand Better?

Chief Justice John Roberts was known as one of the best appellate attorneys of his generation. His briefs have been presented as examples of exemplary writing in several books on legal writing, including Ross Guberman's Point Made. The interesting thing is that Roberts writes all his material longhand, even his current Supreme Court opinions. In 2009, he sat down with Susan Swain and described his processes.

SWAIN: How do you approach the process of writing opinions?

ROBERTS: I, first of all, I do it longhand.

SWAIN: Do you?

ROBERTS: I don't do it on the computer. I'll sit down with the . . . .

SWAIN: Is that the way you always tend to write—longhand, as opposed to on the computer?

ROBERTS: Yes. You know, I think I was just a couple of years too late going through college and law school, the technological revolution was slightly behind me, so I never really learned—I mean, I can do it—but I never learned how to write on the computer. I write out longhand. I have clerks' help if there is something I think they could write part of—you know, 'I feel comfortable with this, so you go ahead and draft something up,' that I will then heavily edit. If it's a new area that I don't feel I know about, I try to do that myself to make sure I'm getting it right. I like to do a lot of the facts myself, because I think they're very important. And certainly be the time the opinion is done, I don't put it to bed until I comfortable that it's— that it's my work.

There is a lot of—it's an ongoing process. You write a first draft. You figure out, 'Well, I need to know a little bit more about how this case fits in.' You go back and read the case. You're always going back and looking at briefs, always bringing the law clerks in and bouncing ideas off of them—'What's wrong with it?' It's sort of the continuation of the oral argument process—'What's wrong with this?' What's the answer to that?'

And sometimes, memoranda go around to the other justices before that: "At conference, I said this, I said this is the reason; as I've gotten more deeply into it, I don't thin that's the right basis for the decision. I'm going to write the opinion this way,' just so they're alerted to that. And you go through, usually in my case, I like to do a lot of different drafts. Twenty drafts, 25 drafts it's not unusual, chaining one thing in one draft and changing something else; sometimes changing it back, and then changing it back again, it's—it's . . . I like the writing process, so I enjoy that.

(Read the full interview here.)

Toni Morrison wrote her novels longhand. There are plenty are articles on the web touting the benefits of longhand writing.

One step to writing better briefs might be to write out the arguments longhand instead of hammering home points on a screen.