Back to Publications

The Second Draft - Volume 33, No. 2

Always Connect: How Studying Creative Writing Helped Me Become A Better Legal Writing Professor DOWNLOAD PDF

  • Michelle Falkoff
    Director of Communication and Legal Reasoning and Clinical Professor of Law
    Northwestern Pritzker School of Law

On the day of my first graduate creative-writing workshop, my professor walked into class with a stack of papers in hand. All twelve of us grew quiet; the week before, he’d brought a similarly sized stack that had turned out to contain copies of the original first page of a story my classmate had turned in as a revision. My professor had brought the original to show how it was possible to revise the life out of a story, and he methodically worked through the original first page as compared to the new one to make his point. The fact that he was correct did not stop us all from feeling blindsided, and it did not stop my classmate from crying afterward.

This week, it was my turn.

The stack of papers contained the first three pages of my story, edited and condensed into one tight opening scene, printed on a single page. As my classmates read it, I caught them sneaking glances at me, trying to read my facial expression for a sign I was not handling the situation well, preparing themselves for another post-class bar visit spent counseling a sobbing classmate.

But there would be no sobbing this week. Once the initial shock of being critiqued so radically and so publicly wore off, I felt elated. I’d turned in a story I knew was weak, a story that was not yet where I wanted it to be, and this first page was a dramatic change.

“I didn’t change a word,” my professor said—insisted, really—and while he and my classmates fought over whether it was appropriate for him to be so hands-on with someone else’s work, to impose his own vision on top of mine, I felt only gratitude. I’d gotten to see how an expert revises: with ruthless efficiency, stripping away excess to reveal the core of what matters. Only occasionally had he suggested actual changes to the language itself; more often he’d chipped away unnecessary words to reveal the more streamlined prose beneath, like a sculptor chips away stone until a person emerges.

In my own teaching, I want my students to feel a similar sense of elation at the thought of revising their initial, messy work into something gleaming and beautiful. My professor’s approach and mine are somewhat different; he prided himself on being a Band-Aid ripper, inflicting brief moments of pain to show young writers what the healing process looks like, while I’m more focused on guiding students through the process of rethinking and rewriting so they feel a sense of ownership over the new version. But his lessons still resonate even as I’ve tried to find ways to make them my own.

One important lesson is about giving and receiving feedback. It’s important to me that students learn to acknowledge that while criticism always hurts, moving through that pain can help writers reach a more productive place. Learning how to give feedback helps students learn how to receive it, and learning how to provide feedback in a more measured way can take the sting out when they’re on the receiving end. This is one area where I’ve tried to take what I learned and expand on it, keeping the useful lesson about the value of feedback while removing the shock value of my professor’s Band-Aid-ripping approach.

My professor also spoke often of the importance of connection in all its forms, from the technical level to the thematic, relying on E.M. Forster’s edict to “only connect.” Both considerations are relevant in legal writing, even if the means of explaining them might differ. In legal writing, the concept of connection is even easier to discuss, in that I can direct students to literally draw arrows between rule statements and analysis in a structured legal discussion. But I’ve found myself broadening the concept of connection past the writing itself and into the classroom, encouraging my students to think about connection not just in their writing but in their lives.

Whenever I write something myself, I can hear my professor’s voice whispering to me, helping me decide which words are really necessary, which words are meaningful and clear, which words have significance. I like to imagine I can serve that function for my students—that  even when the course is over, I will be a benevolent presence, quietly reminding them to always connect