What I Learned From My Fiction Writing Professor, Part I

Fall 2010

by Raoul Cantero

Raoul Cantero

Raoul Cantero

All I know about legal writing I learned from my fiction writing professor. Well, maybe not all of it; only everything that matters. Years after law school – after I learned to start a statement of the issues with “whether” and to include a short conclusion at the beginning of law firm memos – I realized that most of the essential legal writing skills – the ones that matter to the judges who actually read our work product – were skills about writing. Legal writing is just the genre. Yet when law schools teach it, they assume (often falsely) that students already know how to write well; and they should focus only on how to write in the legal context. That’s like teaching people to drive an eighteen-wheeler before they learn to drive a car.

I went to college at Florida State University (I can hear the Gators moaning). I majored in English and Business, with a concentration in creative writing. I took my first fiction writing class in the spring semester of my sophomore year. Our professor began the first class with the declaration, “If you plan on going to med school or law school, don’t take this class. I don’t give A’s.” Because, as it happened, Idid plan on going to law school, this statement upset me. After all, this was the basic class in my major. As the professor – Jerome Stern, who would become one of my mentors – implicitly acknowledged, my GPA was important to me. I couldn’t afford to squander it on some professor with an ax to grind against future professionals.

But Professor Stern said something else to the class that convinced me not to drop it. He told us of his unorthodox grading policy. We would be required to turn in one short story per week. He would grade it, write his comments and suggestions, and return it the following week. If you didn’t like your grade, you could rewrite it and turn it in again as if it were the first time. You were not guaranteed a better grade, just a new one. Professor Stern also kept generous office hours, so before getting to work on revisions you could consult him for advice on what changes were needed. You could repeat that process as often as you liked, until you were either satisfied with your grade or too exhausted to keep improving it. In the meantime, of course, you still had to turn in the other stories due each week – and were free to consult the professor and revise those as well. I accepted the challenge.

On my first story, I got a C-. I met with Professor Stern, rewrote it, and turned it in again. C+. Meanwhile, my second story received a C. I rewrote the first one and received a B; I rewrote the second and received a B+. I turned in the third and got a C+; I rewrote the first again and got an A-. And on it went for the rest of the semester. I rewrote each story until each one got an A. In the meantime, I also had other classes to worry about – Monism and Quietism in Western Literature and Differential Calculus and Political Philosophy and Accounting. It made for a long semester.

As the semester wore on and I wrote and rewrote my stories, restructuring my plots and rethinking my characters’ motivations, I wasn’t sure whether I was working so hard so I could perfect my stories or to overcome the professor’s distaste of future law students. But in the end, the result was the same. The product was the best it could be. Professor Stern’s grading policy encouraged those willing to work hard to strive for excellence. It also taught me the most important lesson for any writer: all writing is re-writing. The first draft should never be the final product – nor the second, or the third, or the fourth.

That second-year fiction writing class was the beginning of my education as a writer – and as a professional. I learned from Professor Stern two critical things: first, excellence does not come easy; it takes a lot of work. And second, it’s worth it. Now when I talk to law students and young lawyers about the profession, I emphasize that it takes hard work to become good at your craft; but the alternative is mediocrity. Perhaps that can be said of any professional – of the pediatrician or the mechanical engineer or the real estate entrepreneur. But I’m sure it’s true of lawyers, and of appellate lawyers in particular.

But that wasn’t all Professor Stern taught me. I still use many other lessons I learned in that first fiction writing class, which I still use in drafting briefs. Years later, Professor Stern taught a course on legal writing, and published an article in the Florida Bar Journal. See Stern, “Can Lawyers Write English?” 66 Fla. Bar J. 44 (Oct. 1992). In that article, he demonstrates how many of the skills used in writing fiction can be applied to drafting briefs. But that’s another story. . .