Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Basic Writing Skills and First Draft Mentality

There has been an ongoing discussion by Professor Stanley Fish in the editorial pages of the New York Times about his observation that our system of education has morbidly failed to teach students the art of writing. I submitted the following comment to the second of his third articles in response;

"For nearly thirty five years I was a busy trial lawyer. I had occasion to interview, hire and review the writing of more than one hundred law clerks or new lawyers. My most frequent notation on the work they submitted to me was 'Please do not submit work to me that is your first rough draft.' Most of the work I received was of poor quality composition-wise; incomplete sentences, dangling participles, etc. I refer to this type of effort as the 'first draft mentality.' Writing is the sum of knowing how to write plus the willingness to re-write a work until one gets it right. The key to that, of course, is knowing what is grammatically correct in the first place. Our current educational efforts, as Professor Fish and some commentators have pointed out, have failed our student population in that regard." Published Sept. 2, 2009

As to my own writing efforts I have found that it is necessary for me to constantly re-write what I have written until I am satisfied that I have gotten what I want to say right. As an example, during the course of my legal career I handled sixty appellate matters. In appellate matters, the writing of a thorough legal brief is the most important activity. I found myself on occasion writing more than thirty drafts until I was saying what I wanted to say and was comfortable submitting my effort to the courts. I submit that the second half of the writing process, the re-write, is the more important of the two (first draft and re-write(s)), and that the same process process ought to guide our speaking and thinking processes as well as writing. Witness the incredible amount of bonehead statements made by our politicians everyday. I rest my case.

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