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Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Role of Outlining in Story-Telling

Judge Bob McGahey shared the following link to a New York Times Opinionator blog, entitled Outlining in Reverse. The blog author, Aaron Hamburger, discusses a technique in which he improves his stories and novels by writing them first and outlining them later. Writing without an outline helps him write freely and without artificial constraints. Outlining after writing helps him more objectively evaluate and re-write his own work.

For law students and lawyers, reverse outlining is a counter-intuitive technique. Most legal writing professors teach law students that an outline, created at the beginning of the process, is the key to creating well-organized memoranda, motions and briefs. Many practicing lawyers write outlines before writing legal documents. These are sound practices, not to be gainsaid. Starting with a well-organized outline ensures thorough work and promotes efficiency.

For storytelling, however, outlining first can impede the writer's creativity and interfere with the development of the story. Creative writing teachers encourage students to begin with a free-writing exercise, not an outline. Rewriting and shaping the story that emerges from a free-write is an important part of the process.

So, what does this mean for us as lawyers and teachers? Perhaps we ought to re-think the way we teach our students to write their opening statements, in particular. If the story is key, we ought to encourage them to get the story right first, then outline the opening they've created, analyze it and plug in the legal framework of the case that comes from their case analysis.

I have recently experienced some success with focusing a group of students on the story of a case, rather than its legal analysis. (Here's a link to my recent blog post on the topic.) What I've noticed is an overall improvement in the quality of their work. In the past, I've had students focus lay out, in somewhat mechanical fashion, the elements of the claim or charge and how they intend to prove or disprove them. When that's done, we try to integrate a story line, but often it sounds wooden and contrived. This time, we did the story first. It's amazing to see how everything else falls into its proper place if the story is right.

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