Sunday, February 13, 2011
An Intervention: What Not to Write
I am conducting an intervention in which both the intervenor and the intervenee are one. I am notoriously slow at learning from my past mistakes, but I am going to try to make up for it by posting a list of writing projects to which neither you nor I should ever say yes in the future.
1. Do not agree to write anything that requires you to learn a different style manual. Yes, I know you will ask yourself, "how hard could it be to learn APA or MLA style?" The answer is: harder than you think. You will waste a lot of time learning something that will not come in handy later, and in the same period of time, you could have written a law review article. So just write the law review article.
2. Do not agree to write a paper (or give a talk) unless it fits in with your pre-existing research agenda. Your likely response to this rule will be one of two arguments. First, you will say, "but it won't take much time and it will be a good experience." The response is that it will take longer than you think because everything takes longer to write than you think it will when you agree to it. And while it is taking so long, it will cease to be a "good experience" because it will be preventing you from fulfilling your research agenda. Your second response will be, "but I'm really interested in the topic." So what? You are "really interested" in forty different topics, including the ones that fit into your pre-existing research agenda. So write on one of those topics instead, especially if your research agenda involves a timely topic. [As I write this, I' m trying to steel my resolve NOT to write about hot news misappropriation when I should be writing about social media speech issues.]
3. Do not agree to a co-authorship unless there are clear rules of engagement and you know the co-author well and have similar writing styles and work habits.
a. Rules of engagement: I have been involved in co-authorships in which it was clear from the outset that I had the last word (when writing with students, for example) and in which it was clear from the outset that I didn't (when writing with a senior co-author while I was untenured). Both worked, though I bridled at the latter. I've also been involved in successful co-authorships where the general outline was reached collaboratively, but each of us had autonomy in writing our parts. That worked well, too, especially where I did not have strong opinions about the other parts. What does not work well are co-authorships in which one person is all take and no give; she expects all of her feedback to be heeded but will not heed any of the feedback she receives. That is the kind of co-authorship that will take years off your life. Co-authorships also do not work well if your philosophical approach to the subject is completely different than your co-author's, which is why you have to know your co-author well enough in advance to know what her approach is. If you are already in a co-authorship that violates one of these rules, consider whether it makes sense to continue or cut your losses.
b. Work habits & writing styles: The most unpleasant co-authorships involve mismatched writing styles or work habits. I am a slow writer, often painfully slow, but I do respect deadlines and try my hardest to meet them, mostly successfully. I try to deliver drafts in the most polished form I can manage. I do not enjoy working with someone who tosses off a draft in a week that actually looks like a draft (rather than a polished final product). I also do not want to work with a prolix co-author. I believe you should never use two sentences when one will do, and one of my highest aims is to explain complex ideas in a way that any educated person can understand them. In addition, there are a number of writing habits I deplore. I cannot respect writers who employ "utilize" instead of "use", I despise the use of "impact" as a verb, and I don't like gratuitous jargon. If these things are negotiable, the co-authorship is not for me. The larger lesson, though, is that you have to know your own writing habits and preferences well enough to know what you can tolerate in a co-author and what you can't.
4. Do not agree to write a casebook unless you are prepared to make it a part of your writing life for the foreseeable future. Casebooks require yearly updates, which take up at least a week every summer. You'll also have to rewrite the whole thing every five years or so. A casebook is not a fling; it is a serious commitment, and not one to be undertaken lightly. [This rule may nix that Advanced Torts casebook I've been thinking about.]
5. Do not agree to write anything just because it will be easy and won't take up much time. It won't and it will.
I have learned from painful experience that the opportunity costs of some writing projects are too high to justify them. Now if I can just put these lessons into practice . . .
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There's no doubt some real wisdom in this advice, but maybe some of it is a bit strong. On #1: what about giving the task to your RA? And regarding #2: I, at least, have sometimes been led to new avenues of research by accepting such invitations. Of course, if one has a big project and a deadline, then one shouldn't get derailed.
Posted by: Brian | Feb 13, 2011 11:19:30 AM
Brian, I have also been led to some great new projects by going astray from my agenda. In fact, for much of my career I didn't really have much of an agenda other than to write about the things that interested me. It was only in looking back at the projects that I could see that they had common themes and preoccupations. The truth is I've violated my own advice far more than I've taken it. I don't regret it, but I'd like to be more disciplined now, in part because professional rewards and accolades seem to go to those who concentrate their body of work in one area and in part because I've finally stumbled onto an area with which I'm obsessed. It took 17 years, but I finally found a topic that I want to return to again and again until I explore all its facets. Re giving the project to the RA: she helped, but it turned out to be too complicated for her to do alone, especially since the sources included unpublished legal documents.
Posted by: Lyrissa | Feb 13, 2011 11:41:32 AM
I'm with both you and Brian on the issue of "distracting" symposia, talks, and other one-offs . I have said "yes" to them too often, and I regret it. At the moment, I'm on a fairly intense streak of saying "no" to things.
Still, most of the time when I do say "yes," I've found the resulting papers to be as good or better than my official "agenda" work; I think in part because the job is well-defined and well-contained. They're certainly enormous fun to research and write.
Posted by: James Grimmelmann | Feb 13, 2011 11:43:45 AM
Love this--> "What does not work well are co-authorships in which one person is all take and no give; she expects all of her feedback to be heeded but will not heed any of the feedback she receives. That is the kind of co-authorship that will take years off your life." So true. You should write more intervention posts.
Posted by: Amy | Feb 13, 2011 1:13:06 PM
#1 is not really so hard. Most are easy and thanks to google scholar, if anything has been cited once, you probably have the correct cite form.
Posted by: frankcross | Feb 13, 2011 1:25:48 PM
You can actually hire folks to put your work into the format of a particular style guide. I used to do this as a part-time job while clerking. (The not-so big secret is that most style manuals and style sheets are far easier than bluebooking.) I charged $25-50/hour depending on the project.
I wouldn't let a style manual stop you from doing an article your are interested in that will reach the audiences you hope to reach. Just find an editor on craigslist and shell out the $100 to get it done.
Posted by: Jessica Owley | Feb 13, 2011 1:46:40 PM
#2 really resonated: "Do not agree to write a paper (or give a talk) unless it fits in with your pre-existing research agenda." Here's a wrinkle that I've experienced this year. Some symposium invitations seem geared toward my past work, not my current project. So do I try to mold what I'm doing now into the "old" topic? I might be overstating this a bit, insofar as I write mostly in the same general area, but sometimes I get deep into the symposium piece ("They invited me!" "They knew my work!"), and have a sinking feeling that I shouldn't have agreed. So, as Larissa said, putting lessons into practice is quite a difficult thing!
Posted by: Bridget Crawford | Feb 13, 2011 7:35:31 PM
3.b seems tough. I'm all in favor of a conversational tone, but I can't count the number of times a commenter has inserted "normative" or some other horrific word in a draft that I'm seeking comments on. Irrational avoidance of contractions is another pet peeve, as is excessive use of the passive voice.
Posted by: anon | Feb 13, 2011 7:52:21 PM
Wonderful post! Lyrissa (and the other commentators), any advice on book chapters adapting work you've already done? For the first time in my (admittedly brief) time teaching I was just asked to do two...
Posted by: I. Glenn Cohen | Feb 15, 2011 10:24:20 AM