No matter how many times I tell students that writing is a process and that first drafts will never be good enough, they generally refuse to believe me. They also are, as evidence suggests, quite skeptical about my ability to instantly identify writing that is a first draft. (TIP: spell-checking and proofreading are two very different things. Ask the student who continually mistyped public as pubic throughout his final memo. And for the love of Hemingway, your and you’re are two different words, but spell-check does not know that. You, however, having graduated from elementary school, should!)
So, a few years ago, I adopted a somewhat paternalistic approach to the final memo assignment for my legal writing students. I assign a closed-universe, single-main-issue memo and give the students a week to do their pre-writing work – reading, briefing, issue-spotting, outlining. Then, I meet one-on-one with each student to help him/her with that pre-writing process. I use the word help somewhat loosely here. More than anything, the meeting forces the students to engage in some pre-writing process, because they a) must show up, b) must bring outlines, notes or charts but not a draft, and c) must answer my questions about their writing plans. So, it’s a sort of passive-aggressive kind of help.
While requiring this meeting effectively prevents procrastination and catches wayward analyses before they sled off course in Ethan Frome proportions, it doesn’t seem as effective at teaching students the important connection between the pre-writing and the actual writing of the memo. I haven’t quite found a way to persuade students that pre-writing is not a project completely isolated from writing. For each effort I make to explain how and why pre-writing and writing should scaffold, I hear at least one student uttering these words: But, how do I start?!
Huh? Why don’t you see that’s what you’ve been doing the past week??
My frustration with my inability to teach students past this hurdle is magnified, because I know what the students feel. I know the angst of a blinking cursor, pulsing in time with the dull ache in your brain, as you stare at the blank Word document that is clearly mocking you. I know the taste of lukewarm, hours-old coffee choked down at 2:00 a.m. in a desperate attempt to stave off the beckoning warmth and security of a blanket and pillow. I know the nagging doubt – the lack of confidence in your competence or intelligence – that pollutes your mind and robs you of words when you are drafting work that will be judged – academically or literally. I know the first sentence is often the hardest one to write.
But, I also know I found a way to get past that. So, I pilfered my memory for some resource that might help. And there it was – a fabulous essay I read a while back by Betty S. Flowers, titled Madman, Architect, Carpenter, Judge: Roles and the Writing Process. She captures the writing process – from inception to completion — in such a perfect set of analogies.
To my aspiring writers (especially those with a legal analysis memorandum due next week) I say: Read this essay, then follow Ms. Flowers’ advice, and let your inner madman out. Write whatever comes out of your head, in any order, even if it has absolutely nothing to do with your topic. Don’t self-edit during this time. That can come later – much later – as you transition to each of the other roles. No one will ever know what you wrote in your first (or second or third draft) – that is the magic of the “Delete” key. Let it be as simple as moving words from your outline to a blank document — because it really is.