Monday, June 20, 2011

Guest column with another tip for 1L students

Our Guest Column for today is a posting by Barbara McFarland, Director for the Office of Student Success Initiatives at Chase College of Law, Northern Kentucky University.  Barbara has suggested an excellent tip for first-year law students and included an exercise to help them apply it.  Thank you for sharing your insight and expertise with all of us, Barbara!  (Amy Jarmon) 

One More Tip:  Remedy Writing Problems

Dr. Amy Jarmon’s May 19th blog post provided ten excellent pieces of advice for incoming students.  She is kindly allowing me to add an eleventh:  Remedy writing problems before you begin law school.

Even students who have always been good writers struggle to master the intricacies of legal writing.  Students who are not good writers do not have time during first semester to learn the basic rules of writing good English prose, punctuating properly, and editing for clarity and concision.  While we can say that our students should have mastered the mechanics during undergrad, or even earlier, the sad truth is that many of them have not.  They have studiously avoided any class that required them to write anything more than a name on a scantron.  Or, if they have done any writing, it was assessed by teachers and professors more interested in commenting on the substance than the form.

When my law school offered a voluntary writing course in the week before classes began last August, almost half of the incoming full-time class attended.  The improvements achieved during that one-week class, as measured by pre- and post-tests, were impressive.  A second post-test given at the end of the first year of law study indicates that some, but not all, of the gains made during that week were retained nine months later.  More number crunching is needed to confirm this initial impression, but the good news is that it’s not too late for our incoming students to learn the rules needed to improve their writing.

How they go about that task is up to them, of course.  They could take a business or technical writing class at a local college or university this summer, beg help from the high school English teacher who tried to teach them those rules back in the ninth grade, or just buy a book.  Grammar and writing books abound; any used bookstore will have inexpensive texts that will serve the purpose.  Online grammar guides are also plentiful.

For a simple technique that students may find helpful, suggest this exercise.

_____________________________________________________________________

Often, mechanical errors are much easier to find in our own writing after the passage of time.  Pull up a document you wrote some time ago, read it critically, and use it to diagnose areas of weakness in your writing.  

First, double space after each period and review each sentence in isolation:

  • Is each group of words between the capitalized first letter and the end punctuation a complete sentence?
  • Do the subject and verb match in number and make sense together?
  • Does every verb that requires an object have one?
  • Are modifiers close to the words they modify?
  • Does every pronoun have an antecedent, and do they match in number?
  • Are the sentences typically very long, containing two or three thoughts that could be separated?
  • Are the sentences typically very short, dividing ideas that could more effectively be communicated in compound or complex sentences?
  • Does the sentence structure vary sufficiently?
  • Does every word of each sentence convey the precise meaning intended?
  • If you read the sentence aloud with great inflection and pregnant pauses, does the punctuation seem appropriate, necessary, and correct?

If the answer to any of these questions is “no,” chart the errors to identify patterns and problem areas. Once you have identified your errors, learn how to fix them by reading in a grammar book or online service.  Rewrite each sentence to fix the sentence-level problems.

Then reunite all the sentences for a particular paragraph and review each paragraph in turn:

  • Is the first sentence a topic sentence that accurately portrays the remainder of the paragraph?
  • Is every sentence in the paragraph related to the stated topic?
  • Do the remaining sentences present ideas or information in a logical order for the purpose of the paragraph?
  • Are relationships between sentences clearly made by references and other transitional devices?
  • Do the remaining sentences develop the stated topic as completely as needed?

If not, identify, chart, and remedy errors.  Rewrite each paragraph into a coherent and correct whole.

When you finish reviewing all of the paragraphs in a particular section of the document, look at the entire section:

  • Do transitional devices between the paragraphs develop the overall topic or theme of the section?
  • Are the paragraphs in a logical order, facilitating the development and exposition of that topic or theme?
  • Are the paragraphs typically overly long, too short, or a good mix of lengths?
  • Are one- or two-sentence paragraphs used only sparingly and for emphasis?

Again, identify, chart, and remedy errors.  Follow the same procedure with as many written documents as possible until you can identify and eliminate errors accurately and efficiently.  If you can write and punctuate good sentences and paragraphs, you are more likely to successfully adapt to the forms and structures of legal writing. 

Enjoy the rest of your summer, and I will look forward to meeting you in August. ___________________________________________________________________

Although this exercise was created specifically for students who have not yet started law school, it can be easily modified for use with current law students.  Unfortunately, many law students are taken by surprise when we expect them to write perfect English prose.  Even those with good mechanics are astonished that their writing style, honed by years of trying to write enough to meet the minimum page requirements of undergraduate papers, must be simplified, clarified, and slashed to meet the expectations of their legal writing professor.

We do our students a service by preparing them for legal writing, in addition to warning them about other rigors and oddities of law study. Recommending that they take time now to remedy writing problems is another step toward the goal of informing and educating our incoming students even before they reach our classrooms.

 

 

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