Law School Academic Support Blog

Editor: Amy Jarmon
Texas Tech Univ. School of Law

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Strunk and White Come to Law School

Mrs. Ryan would be surprised -- and happy, I hope -- to know that the principles I teach 1Ls come straight out of my seventh grade English class.

Marilyn Ryan was smart, demanding, and talented -- the epitome of a good teacher.  The first day of seventh grade, she told us, "You're supposed to study grammar in high school but you probably won't get more than a smattering. So this year I'm going to drill grammar into you because you'll need it. It may not be fun right now, but you'll be glad later on." (She was right, by the way -- none of my high school or college teachers ever taught grammar.) So, in addition to enjoying and dissecting great English and American authors, we spent seventh grade diagramming sentences, learning parts of speech, and mastering grammatical rules. During class, Mrs. Ryan would often refer to Strunk and White's classic book, The Elements of Style. And so it was that I was introduced to one of my favorite paragraphs in the English language, from William White's Rule #13, "Omit needless words."  White explained his elementary principle this way:

Vigorous writing is concise.  A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.  This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

"Omit needless words" and "[M]ake every word tell." It's clear how writing vigorous prose is useful in practice, in legal writing class, and in practice exam answers, but making every word tell is also, I submit, the key to effective outlines. I find that most 1Ls over-write their outlines. They are so afraid that they will leave something important out that they create monstrous "outlines" which not only record all the nuances of what was covered in class week by week but also add long excerpts from case briefs and sometimes material from hornbooks and other outside sources.  Often long quotations from cases and Restatements are pasted in verbatim. Creating a comprehensive record of the class can be a useful source document for students who want to make sure they haven't missed anything in class, but such a long, comprehensive "outline" is virtually useless for preparing for final exams.

It's more useful to think of an outline as a guide for solving a legal problem: in the law school context, this means the outline is a guide for taking an exam. When you approach an outline this way, the excess falls away, including long explanations of historical context, excruciatingly detailed statements of the facts in cases, and long quotations from Restatements and cases. What replaces the verbiage is a structured framework for what issues to address, the order in which to address those issues, the major rules, sub-rules, and elements needed to address the issues, and enough concise examples and context to help you spot the issues when they appear in a problem. In essence, by doing this you are pre-writing your exam, absent the specific facts the exam will supply.

It's especially helpful to write rules in your outline in the same manner in which you plan to write them on the exam. Many students are afraid to put rules into their own words in the outline: they copy rules from cases, restatements, or other sources because they are afraid they might miss the nuances of the rule, or they feel it takes too much time learn the rule well enough to put it into their own words. But that is "stinking thinking." You have more time during the fourteen weeks of the semester than during the three hours of the final. If you thoroughly digest rules well enough to put them into your own words in the outline, you will remember that phrasing during the final; otherwise, you'll waste precious time and mental energy during the exam struggling to translate obtuse phraseology from the outline into a concise sentence that captures the law -- time better spent applying law to the given facts. So prune and make every word tell so your outlines can be the best possible guide for taking your exams.  (Nancy Luebbert)

 

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