Monday, February 23, 2015

Law Clerk Jessica Horne '10 on how "writing the opinion becomes the ultimate test of the soundness of the decision"

Jessica Horne,
Law Clerk to the Honorable Elaine Kaplan
of the United States Court of Federal Claims
and Former Peer Writing Consultant

During my late nights writing political science or philosophy papers as a Bucknell student, I discovered that writing, at least for me, involves more than simply communicating ideas. I never fully understand an idea until I translate it into words, sentences, and paragraphs. Finding a transition from one paragraph to another requires me to contemplate the nuanced relationship between the ideas in each paragraph. I also realized that the communicating function of writing and the understanding function of writing reinforce one another: the better I communicate an idea—the more accurate the vocabulary I use to describe it and the more concisely I explain it—the better I understand it, and vice versa.

While discovering all of this in college was an important lesson for me, nowhere has the function of writing as both communicating and understanding become more clear than in my current job as a law clerk for a federal judge. In this position, my primary duty is to assist the judge in deciding each of her assigned cases—that is, clarifying the facts of the case; determining whether, under those facts, the law entitles the plaintiff to a remedy; and, if so, gauging the appropriate remedy. My method of tackling this demanding job involves researching the law and studying the reasoning of other judges in similar cases, but writing the first draft of the opinion in the case accomplishes the bulk of the work. The particular logic of a decision takes shape only when the process of writing forces me to consider how to organize the opinion into sections and paragraphs and what grammatical structure to use when expressing a complex idea in a sentence.

Complicating this process, when I write a draft of an opinion, the ideas that I am communicating are not necessarily my own. Although the judge and I usually agree on the correct outcome in a case, each of us follows a unique path in arriving at that outcome, and the written opinion must reflect the judge’s approach to the issues. When I struggle to write a certain section in the draft, often that struggle signals that I have not completely understood the judge’s approach. Occasionally, however, difficulty writing the opinion has signaled that the conclusion we initially had in mind is the wrong one. Thus, writing the opinion becomes the ultimate test of the soundness of the decision.

After I finish my draft of the opinion, the judge rewrites it almost entirely. At the beginning of my clerkship, I worried that the quality of my writing must not meet the judge’s expectations. I now realize, however, that, for the judge too, writing is the process by which she thinks through and fully understands the issues in a case.  This experience as a law clerk has shown me that all writers, from college students to federal judges, labor through the process of distilling relatively crude ideas into thoughtful and precise prose.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Fatima Arabzada on writing to focus her ideas

Fatima Arabzada ’16, Economics and International Relations Major
I am Fatima Arabzada, currently a junior from Afghanistan. Knowing Bucknell has a strong Writing Center was a great relief for me, and I even complimented Bucknell in my admissions application essay for having a good Writing Center structure and program. This is because English is not even my second language, and it is a language I taught to myself after a 6-month English course. I used the Writing Center extensively when I was taking poetry, which was the most random class, considering Economics and International Relations are my majors.

Writing helps me clear my mind. When I am to start a paper that I have no idea about or have lots of different ideas, I write them down. This helps me map my thought. It works like magic: more and more ideas come to me just by looking at the ideas I have written down or focusing on a blank page.

Writing also helps me formulate my thoughts. Even in class when I am not able to formulate my thoughts, I write them, organize them quickly, and my thoughts come out clear to me. This is because I no longer have 1001 ideas floating around, and I can organize them.

What I loved about Writing Center is that they ask me to read my writing out loud. After the first two times I went to Writing Center for help, I kept reading out loud and imagining myself in front of a large audience! 

Monday, February 9, 2015

Peer Writing Consultant Amanda Relick on Why She’s Not Afraid to Make a Mess

Amanda Relick '17, Creative Writing and Sociology Major

You always hear people talk about when they learned their greatest life lesson—the moment where they figured it all out.  For me that moment either hasn’t happened yet, or I’ve just taken it all wrong.  Nevertheless, one of the greatest lessons I have learned thus far in my life is that it is actually ok not to have anything figured out.  My high school perfectionist self would gasp in horror as I admit that there really is no right path or wrong path, no yes or no answers, because in reality, life is messy and really no one knows what they are doing.  College is a time to make mistakes, and in making those mistakes, you figure out who you are or who you would like to be.  Funny enough, like most things in my life, this lesson has transferred over into my writing.  Writing, I have learned, just like life, is quite messy, but it is in that mess that the real fun begins. 
In high school I was taught to have a general plan for my essays before I began writing.  I was taught that each paragraph needed to start out with a distinct purpose—a purpose that I needed to know before I had even gotten any words on the page.  I would labor over my outline, making sure that I had every concept covered so that writing my essay became like a fill in the blank worksheet. This strategy trained me to write what I needed to, to carry out my plan, nothing more and nothing less.  I viewed writing as a way of telling rather than as a way of creating.  I had always wanted to write stories in high school, dreaming that one day I would write my own book, but I could never wrap my mind around how to go about it.  Then, in college, when I was finally exposed to a different type of writing other than your typical five-paragraph essay, it all clicked. As a Creative Writing major, I was exposed to writing poetry and short stories, and I even became a staff writer for Her Campus Bucknell and began to write articles.  There is no outline format for writing a poem, no five-paragraph archetype to stick to when writing a short story or article.  And once I took a deep breath and threw my plans out the window, I realized that having a plan only holds you back from creating anything worthwhile.
So I really just began winging it with everything that I wrote.  Formal essays, research papers, you name it, were all started from a place of Oh my god I have no idea.  Now, some people may think that is not the smartest approach, but I beg ever so humbly to differ.  Writing is too often overlooked as a means of thinking, as a way of figuring things out.  The reason why I could never write anything above the standard in high school was because I was limiting myself to my first, rationally and logistically planned out idea.  What I have learned is that your first idea is generally not your best, and if you allow yourself room to think, you will come up with even better ideas.  I believe that the best things in life happen when there is no plan, so why shouldn’t it be the same for writing? Going in with no plan allows me to make a mess on the page with all of my ideas and thoughts.  It is from those points of uncertainty that I have written my best pieces of writing.  In getting over that need to have everything figured out and allowing myself to make a mess, on the page and in life, I have surprised myself with what I am able to create. 

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Molly O'Brien-Foelsch on achieving flow against the odds

Molly O'Brien-Foelsch, Director of University Marketing & Web Content
You know the feeling – the floaty one, in which the words want to land on the page faster than your fingers can move. You forget your surroundings. When you come back to earth, you find you have a decent first draft that you can somewhat effortlessly refine until you have a piece that impresses your readers and even yourself. It doesn’t happen often enough for me, or I’m guessing for any writer, that experience we call flow.

I used to be pretty good at finding flow. In college, I’d settle on the floor by my dorm-room bed with a half-gallon of grape Gatorade by my side and the Talking Heads’ greatest hits cassette playing on my boom box. Since my roommate was a lab-bound engineering major, I always had a few uninterrupted hours to sink into a rare, delicious writing trance.

It’s harder to achieve flow now that I work regular hours in a professional office, manage a small staff, and have tons of emails to address, along with IM’s, meetings and office drop-ins — few of which have anything to do with the writing projects that pepper my extensive to-do list.

And then there is the pressure of the public nature of my work. It’s easy to get writer’s block when I know my writing will be posted online or printed in a magazine or brochure with a circulation of 50,000. The readers themselves don’t make it easy, either. I’m writing for an audience of very smart, very critical faculty, administrators, alumni, parents, students and, gulp, teenagers. Sure, the stakes make my writing better, but they also tend to make me second-guess myself at nearly every turn. Yet when I look back over my professional portfolio, I see that I have, despite these obstacles, managed to achieve flow. The examples are many: the speech the president praised, the web story that garnered some great web traffic, the profile that a faculty member barely edited – these are the outcomes that benefit Bucknell and satisfy the writer in my heart.

So how do I get there? Here are a few strategies I use:

1) Define a goal.
Sometimes I receive a request for a writing project with no guidelines other than “This person needs to speak for 10 minutes” or “We need a blurb about Bucknell.” No pressure! If I find myself filling space with fluff or clichés, I take that as a signal that I have work to do before I write. I consider the needs of the speaker and the audience: What do they need to know about? What do they want to know about? Are there behaviors or actions I want to inspire? I consider, too, the context: Are there ties with historic or current events? Are there recurring themes that I can expand upon or present in a new light?

This kind of pre-writing work happens, for instance, with the faculty stories my team and I produce. We can’t produce a compelling story or effectively convey a main point by smooshing every topic from a 45-minute interview into 400 words. Instead, we think more abstractly about how some or all of those topics relate to each other. Did the interviewee’s body language and tempo reveal a particular passion? What aspects of their work relate to what prospective students and parents want to know during their college search? Are there any hot topics in the media that align with this person’s scholarship or teaching? Is there an emotional component to the work? A humorous one?

To keep my writing sharp, I have to do much more than write: I must stay abreast of issues in higher education and admissions; keep up with University news and faculty and student achievements; attend events and lectures and luncheons; get to know students; and learn about Bucknell’s history and strategic plans for the future. Flow doesn’t come from nothing — achieving it requires not only “mind work” but also the background work, legwork and mindfulness of continual research.

2) Mind map.

Once I have a clear objective or theme, I often sketch out a mind map to build an outline and argument. I’ve used software, but right now I like paper and pen. I put my central idea in the middle, write supporting ideas at the end of the spider’s arms, and fill in the details from there. Sometimes the entire structure of a piece materializes right there on the map. Then all that’s left to do is flesh out the piece.

3) Develop rituals.
I have a routine that works much like having a bedtime ritual did for me as a kid. It gets me in the right frame of mind to concentrate. Since I’ve become leery of ingesting too much purple food coloring, I’ve replaced grape Gatorade with Irish breakfast tea, and I now prefer silence to the Talking Heads. When I’ve got a big writing project to attack, I clean off my desk, organize, then shut off my email and IM, brew a big cup of tea and close my office door.

I have also experimented with writing at different times of the day. Alas, I get revved up at about 3:45 in the afternoon, much too close to quitting time. Weirdly, my best editing and rewriting time is before 7 a.m. I hate mornings, but when there’s a messy draft in need of help, that’s when I have to do it.

4) Do yoga.
Yoga really helps me concentrate, even if a day or two has elapsed since my last session. Writing flow and a good savasana feel nearly identical to me, and even a few ujjayi breaths and a couple of downward-facing dogs help get the juices flowing.

5) Relocate.
Sometimes a change in scenery or atmosphere is the key to the click. I sit in the comfy chair in the corner of my office, go to 7th St. Café or Cherry Alley, or take a walk around campus and chat with a few people to see if that frees up the words. A hot shower steams the words loose from my brain when I’m really struggling with a project.

6) When all else fails, deconstruct and reconstruct.
I save this approach for really high-stakes or complex projects that aren’t cooperating because a) it’s a lot of work and b) my coworkers tend to think I’ve lost it if they see me doing this: I print the thing out and then slice it to bits – with a real scissors. I spread the pieces out on my office floor and rearrange them, categorize them with different colors of highlighters and Sharpies (A, B, C, etc.) and toss out some of the slips. I refer to the remaining slips to revise the digital draft, add new text to fill in the gaps the process has revealed, and line edit from there. This opposite-of-flow approach is a dramatic way to kill my darlings and develop a draft that doesn’t make me cringe, but when all else fails, it works.

Molly O'Brien-Foelsch M'98 is Director of University Marketing & Web Content within Bucknell's Division of Communications. She has worked at Bucknell for more than 11 years and has experience in writing admissions recruitment materials across media, presidential remarks, video storyboards, faculty stories, grant proposals, and other written pieces that communicate the value of a Bucknell education across audiences. She holds a master's degree in English from Bucknell and her bachelor's degree in English from Cedar Crest College. She lives in Milton, Pa., with her husband, Brian, their rescued German shepherd mix, Greta, and two cats. See her portfolio here (you may have to copy and paste, sorry!):