Quite a few students in the last week have been asking me for more detailed step-by-step instructions for what to do from the time they open their exam booklet until the time they actually write out their answer. We here at the Law School Toolbox put a lot of weight in pre-planning essays and front-loading the work so the actual writing is more of a breeze. If you’re not sure what I mean by “scratch paper outlining” or “pre-planning” your essay, think of it as making a blueprint for the answer you’re about to write. Here are some steps to keep in mind.
1. Get with the Times
Note the start time and the time when you should be moving on from outlining your answer to actually writing it. Plan to spend about a quarter to a third of the total allotted time in planning mode—just you, your fact pattern and your scratch paper—no typing.
2. Look to the Call for Help
Immediately read the call of the question first. This will help to orient you toward the question being asked and give you any structural clues your Professor may have left for you.
3. Build an Issue “Skeleton”
Read the fact pattern the first time. Note on your scratch paper any issues you see that you think may be triggered by the facts you have in front of you and the rules you’ve learned over the semester. If you’re not sure about something, write it down anyway, but put a question mark. Underline or highlight any facts that seem important. Leave space between each issue you jot down so you have room to write below each one. Think of this as the “skeleton stage.” You’re laying down the bones of your essay.
4. “Flesh Out” the Skeleton with the Facts
Read the facts for the second time. This time, try highlighting every fact and asking yourself whether it fits into the skeleton you’ve constructed, and if so, where. The goal here is to “find a home” for every fact, if possible. In matching the facts up and writing them under the issues you’ve mapped out on your scratch paper, you’re taking a valuable step toward a more structured, coherent and concise essay. Think of this step as “fleshing out” the skeleton you’ve built. Adding the facts that go with each issue is like wrapping muscle onto the bones.
Whether your Professor throws in facts that don’t matter, e.g. “red herring” facts will depend on her individual exam writing style. For each fact, though, at least ask yourself “does this fact matter?” Challenge yourself to pin each legally significant fact to an element from one of the rules triggered by the issues you’ve spotted and put in your skeleton. Check off each highlighted fact so you can tell at a glance whether you’ve used it yet or not. Note: I’m not saying you should actually spend time writing the full rule out in your skeleton. Hopefully by the time you get to exams, you know the rule in your head well enough to not have to write it down.
5. Write! Write! Write!
Either IRAC or follow an integrated approach. Which style you use will depend on what your individual Professor is looking for. Write based on the structure you’ve come up with. Hopefully, with the comprehensive blueprint you’ve made, you won’t have to stop and think about what to say, you’ll just type quickly and efficiently until you’re finished!
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