This week’s faculty workshop presenter was our very own Professor Jessica Slavin, whose talk was entitled “Talking Back to IRAC: Legal Writing Beyond the Paradigm.” The project on which the talk was based has two components. First, Professor Slavin traced the history and questioned the utility of using IRAC and related formulas as vehicles for teaching legal writing. Second, she presented the results of her own empirical study of briefs submitted to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which suggest that something other than strict adherence to IRAC characterizes the brief writing of at least one set of advocates.
To me, this is interesting and provocative stuff. I find the psychology of writing fascinating (put it together with the process of judging and I could maybe write a whole article about it). Having tried to teach a writing class once, I’ve experienced first hand just how difficult it is to articulate what makes for good writing. For me, at least, this is partly because I go about my own writing in a highly intuitive way. I don’t recall ever consistently thinking about IRAC when writing in a legal context, and I cannot articulate many of the rules of grammar (although I consciously violate some of the more ridiculous “rules,” such as the ones about split infinitives and prepositions at the end of sentences). Given all this, I share Professor Slavin’s sense that there’s something not quite right about a method of teaching writing that suggests that it is somehow a mechanical or rule-driven process. This is not (on my part, at least) to suggest that IRAC-like formulas are not useful, but rather that they are incomplete.
Lately my bedtime reading has included large helpings of the flat-out brilliant David Foster Wallace. (RIP) Wallace, in his essay “Authority and American Usage,*” provides perhaps the best statement I’ve seen about why it’s so hard to teach writing, and why constructs like IRAC seem to fall short. He writes of “the error that most Freshman Composition classes spend all semester trying to keep kids from making – the error of presuming the very audience-agreement that it is really their rhetorical job to earn.” He continues, characteristically, in a footnote:
Helping them eliminate the error involves drumming into student writers two big injunctions: (1) Do not presume that the reader can read your mind – anything you want the reader to visualize or consider or conclude, you must provide; (2) Do not presume that the reader feels the same way that you do about a given experience or issue – your argument cannot just assume as true the very things you’re trying to argue for.
Because (1) and (2) are so simple and obvious, it may surprise you to know that they are actually incredibly hard to get students to understand in such a way that the principles inform their writing. The reason for the difficulty is that, in the abstract, (1) and (2) are intellectual, whereas in practice they are more things of the spirit. The injunctions require of the student both the imagination to conceive of the reader as a separate human being and the empathy to realize that this separate person has preferences and confusions and beliefs of her own, p/c/b’s that are just as deserving of respectful consideration as the writer’s. More, (1) and (2) require of students the humility to distinguish between a universal truth (“This is the way things are, and only an idiot would disagree”) and something that the writer merely opines (“My reasons for recommending this are as follows:”). … I therefore submit that the hoary cliché “Teaching the student to write is teaching the student to think” sells the enterprise way short. Thinking isn’t even half of it.
Wallace seems to have nailed it, though he has perhaps sold his assessment short. This, it seems to me, is the trick not only to Freshman Composition, but to all effective writing. There’s more to it, of course – there’s organization, and at some point one moves from mere concerns about effectiveness to striving for some sort of euphony – but as a description of the basic struggle I find myself engaged in every time I sit down to write, it’s hard to do better. Viewed from that perspective, IRAC appears as the treatment of a symptom rather than the cause. Of course, that’s often all that one can reasonably do. To her great credit, Professor Slavin is struggling with the question of whether, and how, we might do more.
*This essay appears in the collection “Consider the Lobster.” The quoted material is at page 106. A shorter version, which does not include the quoted material, appeared in Harper’s as “Tense Present: Democracy, English, and the Wars over Usage.”