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Monday, March 31, 2014

Writing Methodologies

Up until now, I’ve generally taken a very deliberate approach to writing.  At the outset, I’d take an extended period of time to do exhaustive research and formulate my ideas.  I’d then painstakingly outline my argument step-by-step, reformulating arguments and conducting additional research as necessary.  Only after I’ve completed this extensive planning and gestation period would I start the actual writing.  And as I write, my tendency has been to write and polish each section as much as possible on the first pass before moving on to the next.  Thus, by the time I finish my first run of actual writing, I’d have a paper that was close to fully formed; although issues will of course always pop up during the editing and review process, I’d try to nip them in the bud as much as possible the first time around.

Recently, though, I’ve started experimenting with free-writing a bit more.  That is, starting with just a basic idea and a small bit of preliminary research, I’d write very quickly through large swaths of an argument, laying things out in rough and abbreviated form, with the idea that this very rough cut would help me work through my ideas and focus my subsequent research.  This has of course felt radically different from my usual approach, as it very much emphasizes intuition and spontaneity in crafting arguments without getting bogged down (at the early stages) with lots of foundation-building and sanity checks.

There are certainly potential benefits and drawbacks to each approach.  The more deliberate approach ensures that one is on strong footing at each step of the process, thus limiting the risk that time will be spent writing an argument or a section that simply does not work, repeats the existing literature, and so forth.  At the same time, it's time-consuming at the front end, and extensive research early in the process can sometimes dampen creative thought.  The free-writing approach, on the other hand, potentially allows for more “out-of-the-box” thinking at the early stages of the writing process.  But it can be highly inefficient, as subsequent research and reflection might reveal serious flaws or other issues that require going back to the drawing board.

Of course, everyone works differently, and I imagine that many adopt different writing approaches based on a variety of circumstances (deadlines, the nature of the piece, the extent to which one is familiar with the literature in a given area, and so forth).  But I’d be interested in hearing about people’s approaches to writing.  Is there a particular approach that you tend to adopt, all things being equal?  Has your approach generally remained static throughout, or has it changed over time?  And if your approach tends to vary, what sorts of factors influence the approach you take?

Posted by David Han on March 31, 2014 at 01:54 PM | Permalink


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I'll be interested to hear what the responses are. I personally prefer free-writing, as I think law review articles usually boil down to "one big idea" rather than "lots of little ideas." If you take each step of the argument as its own world, then you can lose the big idea or become so wedded to a step that you retain it when you shouldn't.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Mar 31, 2014 2:07:45 PM

I raised a similar suject in my early days writing at Prawfs and got some good responses:


Since then, I have moved firmly into the "free-writing" approach. And I'm convinced regular blogging has a lot to do with it. I'm now habituated to writing this way and it applies whether I'm writing a blog post or a full-bore law review article.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Mar 31, 2014 3:46:23 PM

I wonder how much it has to do with being intimately familiar with a specific area of law and the literature surrounding it. As I'm still just starting out, I haven't written a second piece in the same area of law as a prior piece. Thus, everything I write is incredibly deliberate and slow. I imagine I will free-write a lot more when I do return to subject areas, as I will be sure of the basics and familiar with the other literature the second time around.

Posted by: Andrew Selbst | Mar 31, 2014 3:59:00 PM

The more I write, the less research I do in advance. For me, writing is a way to crystallize my thoughts. So writing is thinking. The really difficult part is editing. In particular, not getting hung up on ideas or clinging to phrases that I should let die.

In contrast to David, I don't think of this method as being terribly inefficient even if an initial idea doesn't go anywhere. In that case, I can either give up entirely knowing that I haven't invested an enormous amount of time or, more often, I find that my paper morphs in response to further research, suggestions from early readers, etc.

Posted by: Matthew Bruckner | Apr 1, 2014 10:16:16 AM

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