Thursday, January 11, 2007

professional writing

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What Now asked me a great question about professional writing in a comment, and it got me thinking generally about how schools do--and don't--train people to write professionally. Law school seems better than most in offering legal writing, which teaches students legal reasoning and memo-writing. There is a system of analysis called IRAC or IREAC, where you identify the Issue, state the Rule, give an Explanation of the Rule, Analyze the situation, and Conclude. This is the method for briefing cases when you read them, and this is how you go about applying precedent cases to a new situation in order to fashion an argument.

In a legal memo, for example, you might have a situation you have to evaluate. Say, a woman has seen a family member gravely injured by a speeding automobile, and it has affected her life in profound ways. She can't sleep, is depressed, jumpy, irritable, freaked out, and unable to return to work. The driver is already liable to the injured party, but is he liable to her? You have to figure it out.

You realize that her charge resembles a tort called Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress (usually abbreviated IIED), but in this case it is linked to a driver's negligence, so it may be Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress. You look for similar cases in your state that qualify as precedent cases (appellate decisions, circuit courts using your state's laws, etc. that haven't been overturned and thus are still "good law"). You do the IRAC or IREAC analysis to argue why these precedents apply to your case. You then do the IREAC analysis on your case and make an argument in the memo whether you think the woman has a case or not.

All this we learn, and this is the basis for good legal writing and reasoning.

What we DON'T learn is how to write for a test. Supposedly we apply some form of IRAC to test-taking, but as you can see, this rather lengthy process takes a lot of time to spell out, so it has to be different. Also, the point on a test is not to brief cases, but to analyze a situation and apply rules to it.

Let me explain. We spend the entire semester in any given class studying case law. Cases. We IRAC them in some form or other. So far, so good.

Then we get to the test. Even though the semester has been spent reading cases, they don't matter on the test. What matters is the rules that come from the cases. The rules are called "black letter law," as opposed to case law. You will have little practice applying and analyzing the rules at length before hand. Mostly, you will discuss them in their textual (case) context.

The closest comparison I can think of is studying Ulysses or Mrs. Dalloway the way one would, then taking a test where you have to recognize metempsychosis or Time Passing in a completely different, silly made-up scenario. The professor has said he doesn't care about cases (novels), only the rules. And there are lots of rules from hundreds of novels (really, short stories). So what exactly do you say, once you have identified metempsychosis or stream-of-consciousness? DO you talk about the story(case)? How much? The new scenario? How much do you say? Time is so short on the exam--have you said too much? Not enough? Have you analyzed it enough? Too much? What did you leave out? You have to stop now and move on to the next question. And you already wasted a lot of time writing complete sentences.

I explained it to a friend as spending the entire semester building a Ferrari as a class project, then being tested on whether or not you could drive it really fast on a racetrack. You never learned how to drive it, and building it won't teach you that. You have to go out and get a Racecar Driving for Dummies book and figure it out.

You can see where this kind of abstraction would trip up an English type like me, even when she can logically see how the abstraction works. Methodical, careful, textual people have got to give it up and get faster, looser, more abstract, more information-managing. Dump it, splatter it, and move on. It's not about thinking, folks.

I've already decided to shell out for at least one of those day-long seminar courses in writing exams. I just have to make the transition and figure it out.

Now, this is a bit like sink-or-swim, but even though I am whiny and cross and depressed, I think it is a lot LESS sink-or-swim than horror stories I have heard about some elite grad school literature programs that cut their MA students after a year. A friend of mine went to one of those superfancy programs, and they kept telling her she needed to write better, but nobody could tell her how (because none of them could teach writing--they just knew good or bad writing when they saw it). She tried and tried and sweated and worked like a maniac and got cut anyway. After running up a year's worth of Elite University tuition debt.

So I know I will figure it out, and hopefully won't get cut after a year! Maybe professional writing can be about flexibility and growth rather than limitations and failure. Learning another kind of writing and thinking doesn't have to be about loss of the expertise one has already acquired. There's a Roz Chast cartoon I love where a woman is reading a tabloid and happily exclaiming: "Ben Affleck and Gwyneth Paltrow are on the outs!" Behind her, a fat suitcase labelled "Medieval Art History" is falling from the sky into a big trash can. But we don't have to erase what we've learned from our hard drives in order to make room for new stuff, do we? Can't we just grow the RAM to run it all at once? I love Lucyrain's story--also in a comment-- about her successful lawyer friend who had to overcome writing problems her first year. Thanks for that--and for giving me the chance to talk about all this, and think about professional writing more generally.


What Now? said...

Interesting -- thanks for this explanation, which is a window into a world that I don't know at all. It does seem to me that this fundamental mismatch between what you all do in class and what you're asked to do on exams is very strange pedagogy. I'm glad there's such a thing as a one-day seminar in writing exams -- I'm sure that will make all the difference for you! -- although it does seem the sort of thing that law schools would provide gratis for their students. Ah well.

Anyway, I'm sure that you'll do beautifully well once you take this seminar and master this new genre!!

lil'rumpus said...

Chiming in a bit late to send along my thoughts and well wishes. I totally understand your fear/anger/frustration. It does look like your are being your typically smart self in handling this proactively, though. The seminar in exam writing is a good idea, I think. Especially since really all you need is to learn the rules and figure out the law school exam genre. You already have the smarts and the skills, methinks. Now you just need a template so that you know which smarts and skills to use.

Oh, and as far as the computer/longhand issue you metioned in an earlier post/comment. I have to write longhand if the option is available. I did my PhD exams that way despite the pressure to use the computer. I think with my hand moving...

Go back and kick some law school ass!

Elizabeth McClung said...

Interesting the way you demonstrate how each discipline, after several hundred years of academic teaching, still has these odd loopholes in pedagogy - I am reminded of my "elite university" which graded first and second year student writing on a "comprehensive scale" in which Shakespeare got 95%, The Book of Job 92% - guess how well first years did?

lucyrain said...

"Learning another kind of writing and thinking doesn't have to be about loss of the expertise one has already acquired."

Precisely! My Lovely Renaissance Lesbian Lawyer-to-Be!

greymatters said...

First of all, I enjoy your blog muchly. I've not commented before, but have read your thoughts from time-to-time, with enjoyment abounding on my part.

I'm not sure that the following anecdote applies to what you are fleshing out, but I chuckled when your post hit a memory prompt. My first serious girlfriend was a graduate of a top-tier law school, and a tax attorney for a goodly number of years. Back when we were dating, we'd have riotous discussions/arguments/fights -- the fever and temperature of such varied -- over differing views on logic, truth, proof, and meaning. Since we are friends to this day, we still chuckle occassionally over our youthful enthusiasms.

As decades passed, she realized she HATED the law, precisely because it stifled so very much expression and experience. She's now back in school, getting her M.Div. She jokes that she still ponders logic, truth, proof, and meaning but can muster a larger arsenal to express her thoughts and beliefs.

However, she talked for the first year of study about how hard it was for her to write expansively, and getting papers back from profs that suggested that little personal or human presence seemed obtainable from her work (this from a woman who thought and wrote gorgeously).

Both the law and God (tm) seem to be exacting mistresses.

Since your life seems somewhat similar (albeit the flipside of a coin), I thought I'd share.

Good luck to you, SJ. You'll get there, I'm sure.

Sfrajett said...

Thanks for the comment, gm, I appreciate the stories, and the encouragement. And thanks to others as well: EM, LR, et al. You are great.

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