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Guest Blogger: Paula Gail Benson – What Taking the Bar Exam Taught Me About Writing

Paula Gail Benson

Paula Gail Benson

What Taking the Bar Exam Taught Me about Writing

by Paula Gail Benson

Just having a law degree doesn’t make you a lawyer. Most states require that a law school graduate pass a bar examination to work and have the title “attorney.” Bar review courses of six-to-eight weeks help law school grads prepare for bar exams, which are grueling three-day marathons of mostly essay questions to be answered in set time periods.

The professor who taught test taking strategy in my bar review course was a meticulous man, a consummate lawyer, and an excellent writer. He did not make idle promises, but he assured us that if we followed his technique, we would improve our scores on the essay portion of the test.

He was correct. I used his method and have advised many law students to do the same. I credit it with helping me pass the bar exam.

This what he recommended:

(1) Read the question and see who it asks you to be. Usually, this is one of three choices: (a) an attorney being consulted by a potential client, (b) an attorney being asked to defend a client, or (c) a judge deciding a case.

(2) Write the first sentence of your answer based on who you are asked to be and how youwould resolve the situation. For example, “I am [the attorney advising or bookdefending a client or the judge deciding the case] and I would resolve the matter by [advising my client about his rights or deciding the case this way].”

(3) Write out your reasoning for the advice or decision. List it out point by point.

(4) If, during the reasoning process, you decide your initial statement was wrong, go back and correct it.

(5) Complete your answer with the following statement: “In conclusion, I as [the attorney or judge] would [advise my client or decide the case] in this manner _____________________.”

Why is the technique so beneficial? It gives the exam taker a framework for completing the task and signals to the exam grader that the answer was thought-out and well-organized.

How can it benefit other types of writing? It shows the writer the scope of his work and provides the reader with a full story.

A full story. That’s the key, isn’t it?

People expect a story (and an argument) to have a beginning, middle, and end. If you give them that framework, they’ll stick with you until the story is done. They’ll have a sense that not only is the story well-plotted, but also that it’s complete and satisfying.

So, how would I make the bar review advice applicable to fiction writing?

(1) Start by figuring out who your main character is, when the story occurs, and where it ends. Think about the first stories you heard. Don’t they begin with “once upon a time” or a human or animal character in a particular place, like Peter Rabbit at home with his family, but looking longingly at the forbidden garden?

(2) Write a brief synopsis of your story. For example, “Once upon a time, after going to the ball, Cinderella married her prince.”

(3) Now, spell out in greater detail how Cinderella achieved her objective. Reason it out step by step.

She was a poor girl whose father died. She lived with her jealous step-mother and step-sisters. They made her do all the chores around the house and sleep in the cinders. When they received an invitation to meet the prince at the ball, they told Cinderella she would have to stay at home.

cinderellaFortunately, Cinderella had a fairy godmother who by magic helped Cinderella attend the ball. The fairy godmother encouraged Cinderella, telling her she had all the qualities to be a princess. However, Cinderella would have to follow certain rules to go to the ball because magic has its limitations.

Cinderella went, had a wonderful time, and met her prince. She forgot about the rules, so she returned home without the magic that had enabled her journey.

The prince found one of Cinderella’s enchanted shoes. Because it was a bit of the magic fitted to her, only she could wear it. The prince tried the shoe on every female foot in the kingdom.

When her step-mother and sisters tried to hide her away, Cinderella remembered what her fairy godmother had told her about her princess-like qualities. She took the prince’s horse some water. He saw her, and offered her a chance to try on the shoe.

(4) If, during the reasoning process, you decide your initial statement was wrong, go back and correct it.

Cinderella has a lot just happening to her. If she’s really the protagonist, she needs to face her own obstacles and work things out for herself.

That synopsis should be: “Once upon a time, after struggling to attend the ball and finding ways to believe in and assert herself, Cinderella created her own magic by taking charge of her life and agreeing to marry her prince.”

(5) Complete your story with a satisfying ending: “In conclusion, because Cinderella courageously took advantage of her opportunities and creatively followed her own path, she found her prince and lived happily ever after.”

 

I would add one more step to the modified bar review advice. This suggestion is from Rob Parnell’s The Easy Way to Write Short Stories that Sellbooks that sell

Practice writing short stories and finishing them with “THE END.” Doing this enough times helps you create your own magic and provides you with the confidence that you have what it takes to be a writer.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Paula Gail Benson is a legislative attorney and former law librarian. Her short stories have been published in Kings River Life, the Bethlehem Writers Roundtable, Mystery Times Ten 2013 (Buddhapuss Ink), and A Tall Ship, a Star, and Plunder (Dark Oak Press and Media, released January 20, 2014). She regularly blogs with others about writing mysteries at Writers Who Kill. Her personal blog is Little Sources of Joy, and her website is http://paulagailbenson.com.

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  1. Grace Topping
    April 15, 2014 at 6:03 am

    Hi, Paula — Excellent article, thank you. It’s interesting that sometimes things we learn from one individual can have such long-lasting effects on our lives.

    I worked as a technical writer for a number of years, and that experience enabled me to go right to the heart of a subject and to present material in a logical manner. Sure helps with plotting murder mysteries.

    Grace

    • April 15, 2014 at 9:59 am

      Grace, thanks for your observation. Sounds like you definitely are a plotter — clear and technical in your thoughts.

    • April 18, 2014 at 10:35 am

      Grace, thank you so much for your kind words. Isn’t it interesting how writing for another discipline can give you insights into fiction writing? Good luck with your murder mysteries!

  2. April 14, 2014 at 11:00 am

    Thanks, E.B., Joanne, and Georgia, for your kind words. Debra, I appreciate this opportunity and enjoyed writing the message. It brought back memories of a wonderful Professor and also helped give me some perspective about fiction writing. Many thanks!

    • April 15, 2014 at 9:58 am

      Paula, my pleasure to have you. Not only has your piece generated comment here, but also on Facebook from an entirely different group of writers and readers. You definitely struck a nerve.

  3. April 14, 2014 at 10:00 am

    Paula, another great article. I consider myself a pantser based on Stephen King’s On Writing. After a first draft written without a plan, an outline appears. That’s when details can be plugged in or scenes changed especially if there are historical subplots to weave in. I could never plan in detail like Elizabeth George does. Yay for Scrivener. And thx to Debra for hostessing this discussion.

    • April 15, 2014 at 9:57 am

      Appreciate your comment. When you are writing the first draft without a plan, do you know where you want to end up – just not how you are getting there or are you just shooting from the characters in your head?

  4. April 14, 2014 at 9:09 am

    Excellent analogy and advice! Thanks Paula 🙂

    • April 15, 2014 at 9:56 am

      Thanks for stopping by and for the retweets! Paula definitely made some excellent points for writers.

  5. April 14, 2014 at 7:06 am

    I agree with everything you said in this blog, Paula. For the life of me, I can’t understand how pantsers ever finish a novel. Their revisions must be extensive. Taking a course in logline, synopsis, and query development isn’t just for those writers who have finished their novels. Those skills can be used during the development of a novel as well.

    • April 14, 2014 at 8:18 am

      Thanks for stopping by E.B. I really think Paula nailed it this morning. The only thing I wonder about pantsers is whether internally they really have incorporated the plotter steps. What do you think?

      • April 14, 2014 at 8:33 am

        Most of the pantsers I’ve talked to have a notion of where they are going or how the murder takes place, but no specifics. Perhaps I have a tendancy to make more complicated plots. Usually, I have multiple POVs so that does complicate the plot and character arc.

        • April 15, 2014 at 9:56 am

          Good point. I know some of my works just flow — but I have a feeling how the story is going to unfold . When there are complicated twists, I plot in detail, but again, sometimes the characters and the feel of the story take me in a different direction or curve but end up with the ending I envisioned.

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