Wednesday, September 4, 2019

The Importance of Revision in Legal Writing

One of the things I stress when teaching legal writing is the importance of revision.  Yet some students ignore this advice and cling to their initial thoughts.  Is the reason for this laziness, or is it something more complicated?

Jennifer Finney Boylan has some insights in a NY Times article: How I Learned to Fail Better.

"Why do we hate revision so much? Why do so many authors write a single draft and then declare their work complete?

In part, it’s because revision feels like failure. Having finished the task, who in their right mind would want to begin again? But sending out first drafts is the literary equivalent of walking around without pants. I don’t recommend it.

At Barnard, I teach a class called “Invention and Revision.” The first assignment is to write a story that is seven pages long. We come to class and talk about what works and what doesn’t. The second assignment, three weeks later, is the same story, now 21 pages long. We have the conversation in workshop once again. Then, three weeks after that, the student comes in with a third draft of the same story, three pages long. The final assignment is a fourth draft, with the length unspecified.

This echoes the process a lot of authors go through. The first draft asks the question, “Do I know anything?” The second draft — the long one — says, “Here’s everything I can think of on this topic.” The third draft — the short one — makes it shine.

My son’s French horn teacher once told him, “The difference between a good musician and a bad musician is that the good musician likes to practice.”

Multiple drafts are the writer’s equivalent of practice, and the mark of a good writer often is that she takes pleasure from watching the story morph from draft to draft. But it takes patience and time. Sometimes you have to wait a story out, let days, or months, go by, until you begin to see things more clearly.

As Samuel Beckett says, in “Worstward Ho”: 'Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.'"

I think the underlined passage is key.  Good writers derive pleasure from the writing process, including revision.  Revision is not just a chore; it is an essential part of being a writer.

We must convince our students of the importance of revision.  This requires a change of attitude.  Revision is not failure.  (The present generation of students has a particular fear of failure and acknowledging their mistakes.)  It is making our writing the best it can be.  Our students need to savor the process.

(Scott Fruehwald)



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I agree with the sentiments of this post entirely. But I have one quibble. I started teaching writing to law students 15 years ago, just about a generation. And I was a writing tutor to other undergraduates in college, 20 or so years before that. The reluctance to revise is nothing new with the current generation--it has been a struggle every generation with which I'm familiar.

Posted by: Brian Larson | Sep 4, 2019 10:32:02 AM

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