June 1, 2011
New class brings fiction writing workshop to law school
The University of Iowa is known around the world for its writing programs, and now you can add to the list a writing workshop offered by the College of Law that will help law students produce clearer, more easily understood legal writing.
"Fiction writing offers good lessons to lawyers about good writing and editing," said Michelle Falkoff, the legal analysis and writing professor whose class, Narrative Strategies for Lawyers, will be offered for the first time this fall. She said the University of Iowa is well known as the Writing University and for the Iowa Writers' Workshop, celebrating its 75th anniversary this month. As a UNESCO-designated City of Literature, she said Iowa City provides a great atmosphere for writing, and that now includes legal writing.
The law school has for years taken advantage of the resources of the university's many writing programs to help law students become better writers. Some law writing faculty have received their MFAs from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and the tutors who work in the college's writing center are often students in UI writing programs.
Law students have also been able to take a fiction-writing course outside the law school for credit toward their law degrees. Some law alumni have gone on to careers as novelists, too, such as Dubuque mystery writer David Hammer.
But this is the first time the law school has offered a writing course geared specifically for law students. Falkoff, a fiction writer herself who received her MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, said the connection makes sense. She sees so many links between fiction and legal writing that she's developing a research paper about using fiction writing classroom techniques in legal writing classes.
"There's a clear connection between fiction writing and legal writing because both require the writer to be persuasive," said Falkoff, whose paper will be published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Legal Education. "To be a lawyer is to persuade someone, whether a judge, a jury or another lawyer, that your client's point of view is the proper one. To be a fiction writer is to persuade your reader that the world in the story exists, that these characters exist and that these things are happening."
There are differences, of course. Fiction writers want to leave some air in the story so readers can bring their own experience, while lawyers' writing needs to be as clear and explicit as possible, leaving little room for interpretation.
The class will also introduce elements of narrative nonfiction writing to help students improve their writing, Falkoff said. She said the writing workshop goal of helping writers see the world in more imaginative ways and learning to better critique their own writing by analyzing others' applies in both.
"The point is to find what's broken in a person's writing and help them fix it, so the analysis in this class will be as rigorous as in any workshop," Falkoff said.
Iowa will become one of a handful of law schools that offer workshops like this to improve legal writing, she said. Students will write one story with a legal theme for workshopping and it will be critiqued using the same techniques developed across campus at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. They will also read published stories and essays about writing, including the work of such UI authors as the late Workshop director Frank Conroy's essay "The Workshop."
Ultimately, Falkoff said the goal is to produce clearer legal writing that is more easily understood by readers outside of the law. Keeping the writing simple, using the best possible words and removing arcane language will be her lessons.
"I hope that this will help the College of Law produce lawyers who are good, simple writers, some of whom go on to become law clerks and influence their judges to write clearer judicial opinions down the line," Falkoff said.
STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Service, 300 Plaza Centre One, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500
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