A student of mine commented on my last post that precise writing was “tedious but helpful”—a characterization I am quite pleased with. First, there is no shortage of tedium in the practice of law, and having the concentration and will to slog through it is an important attribute. Second, as a teacher, there is nothing that I would rather hear than that an exercise was helpful to the learning process.
The next exercise I want to describe is not particularly tedious, but is, I hope, still helpful.
As I mentioned previously, students in my class draft a judicial opinion as part of their coursework. We proceed through multiple stages in this effort: first understanding the individual cases, then understanding the contours of the doctrine, then outlining the analysis, and finally moving through multiple drafts.
After the students have completed their first draft, I have them save the draft as a new document and delete everything except the first sentence of every paragraph. I refer to this new document as a “topic sentence outline.”
The topic sentence outline proves to be a powerful analytical and writing tool.
First, each topic sentence must stand on its own two feet.
I have students review their topic sentences to see if they are direct and concise, and if they clearly convey to the reader the idea that will be explored in the following paragraph.
Second, the topic sentences must relate to one another, both substantively and rhetorically.
Thus, reading the topic sentence outline should be close to reading a precise of the full draft. By reading the topic sentences only, I should understand the basic contours of the student’s argument. Each topic sentence should indicate the relationship between the idea it presents and the idea presented in the topic sentence before it. It is the job of the paragraphs to provide the details of the analysis—to support the proposition advanced in the topic sentence.
Third and finally, the topic sentences must actually signal the content of the associated paragraph, and the paragraph must actually support the topic sentence.
After the students have revised their topic sentences so that they make sense individually and flow one into another, I have them insert their revised topic sentences back into their draft. At this point, the students must scrutinize whether their paragraphs do, in fact, support the topic sentences they have drafted.
For students who often do not have a lot of experience rigorously editing their own work, I find this exercise helps them develop a critical eye toward their own logic and writing, and further helps them to develop internal standards for quality in their written work.