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.