How did you become a writer?By becoming a serious reader. At the age of 9, I was taking books seriously—spending a lot of time poring over taxonomical books on snakes and dinosaurs and an alphabetically arranged book on composers’ lives. By the age of 15, I had accumulated a library of 40 or so volumes, many on language and writing. At 16 I encountered Eric Partridge’s Usage and Abusage (1940), a book I found impossible to put down. By 18 I had memorized most of that book and of Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (2d ed. 1965)—as well as of Follett’s Modern American Usage (1966).
So when, at the age of 22, I started writing what would become my Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage (1987)—I was a first‑year law student at the beginning—my preoccupation seemed like an entirely normal and natural activity.
Meanwhile, my library grew and grew: it now stands at 34,000 volumes, a third of which are about language and writing.
Name your writing influences.
Authors: H.W. Fowler, Eric Partridge, Wilson Follett, Theodore M. Bernstein, Bertrand Russell. Teachers: Christopher Ricks, John W. Velz, Gayatri Spivak, Charles Alan Wright.
When and where do you write?
You can write anytime people will leave you alone for a few minutes—and I do. But most of my books have been written at home between the hours of 11:00 p.m. and 3:00 a.m. And on airplanes.
What are you working on now?
Now that I have a few more than 20 books in print, many of them being instructional books and reference works, I find that I’m constantly working on new editions of them all. My reading is utilitarian, so everything I read is with an eye to enriching one of my own books in one way or another—even if that just means citing a misused word in Garner’s Modern American Usage. Unfortunately, I lost the ability to engage in pure pleasure reading many years ago.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
For an evening or two, yes. But never in a serious way.
What’s your advice to new writers? Write purposefully, as if for publication—every single day. (Many will tell you just the opposite.) Constant practice is essential. And read much more during the day than you write.
Bryan A. Garner is the author of more than 20 books on legal writing and language in general. His magnum opus is the third edition of Garner’s Modern American Usage, published by Oxford University Press. He is best known as editor in chief of the venerable Black’s Law Dictionary, now in its ninth edition.
Since 1991, he has taught more than 120,000 lawyers, judges, and paralegals in continuing-legal-education seminars throughout the U.S. and abroad. His company, LawProse, Inc. of Dallas, is the country’s largest provider of legal-writing and -drafting CLEs.
The late novelist and essayist David Foster Wallace, writing in Harper’s, called Garner “a genius, though of a rather particular kind... . He’s both a lawyer and a lexicographer (which seems a bit like being both a narcotics dealer and a DEA agent).”