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Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Tips on Placing Law Review Articles

I've come back to guest-blog this month at Prawfs in memory of my friend Dan Markel.  Dan started Prawfs as a forum for junior law professors.  (The strange blog name, for those who don't know, is a Markelism for "raw law professor blog.")  I thought it would be fitting to focus my guest-blogging on the topic that originally formed the core of Dan's vision.   In particular, I'm going to blog about topics of special interest to junior law professors and those currently on the teaching market. I'll start with a topic that a lot of junior profs worry a lot about: How to place a law review article in a good journal.  Here are five tips to consider.

1) Submit in the spring.   The best time to submit an article is in the spring submission window, after the new Articles Editors take over and are looking to fill their volume.   Other times can work, certainly, but they tend to be more hit or miss than the spring.  So unless you have a very time-sensitive article, or you need a placement on your CV (such as for a FAR form you plan to submit), it's best to wait for the spring.  The spring season varies journal to journal, but a good ballpark is somewhere in the mid-February to mid-March window.

2)  Make your abstract and introduction clear and easy to read.  For placement purposes, the abstract and introduction are the most important part of the article.  Articles editors will skim them to see if the rest of the article is worth reading, so you need to make the best possible impression.   Think of this as your elevator pitch. The abstract is the 1-minute version of your pitch, and the introduction is the 5-10 minute version. Your abstract and introduction should be as clear and straightforward as you can possibly make them.  Assume your reader is a generalist, and speak plainly and without jargon about what you are saying and why it matters.  For example, if you're making a normative argument, don't just say that your article "explores" a topic or "contemplates" an issue.  Instead, tell them your  precise claim at the outset.  Have a prominent paragraph in both the abstract and introduction that begins, "This Article argues that . . . ." 

3) Proof-read and Blue Book properly.  This recommendation may sound obvious, but it's still really important.  Articles editors will make judgements about your submission based on whether it is bluebooked properly and has any typos or grammar problems.  I once had an article rejected by a single vote in a full board read at a Top-10 journal because the "swing vote" on the committee found some typos in my submission.  According to the articles editor who later filled me in, the "swing vote" editor rejected the piece on the thinking that shoddiness in proofreading might correlate with shoddiness in argument.  Don't let that happen to you.  

4)  If you have relevant experience, consider saying so in an "About the Author" blurb.  If you're a relative unknown or not-yet-established scholar, the articles editors may wonder whether you are enough of a subject matter expert to speak authoritatively about your subject.  Including a CV along with your submission is one way to show them that you are.  Another way is to add a title page that has your contact information and an "about the author" paragraph that summarizes your background.  The "about the author" paragraph is basically your opportunity to tell the articles editors that you know what you're talking about.  For example, if you've submitted an article on patent law, the paragraph might say something like this:  "Jane Smith is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Another Law School, where she teaches and writes in the area of patent law.  She worked for three years as an associate in the patent practice of A, B, and C.  Professor Smith graduated magna cum laude from Snooty Law School, where she published an article on Patent Act reform. She is also registered to practice before the United States Patent and Trademark Office."  

5) Shorter titles are usually better than longer titles.  Titles are much less important than the abstract and introduction, of course, but they're also the first thing articles editors will see.  A lot of law review authors go with really long titles.  They often use the "Cute Phrase That Hints at the Argument You're Making: What the Article is Really About" format that is popular among student notes.   When it comes to titles, though, shorter is usually better.  It's more professional.   That means avoid the colon-bifurcated title if you can.  If you have use it, make it short.  

I'll try to answer any follow-up questions in the comment thread.   Otherwise, best of luck with your submissions.

Posted by Orin Kerr on October 1, 2014 at 12:24 AM in Article Spotlight | Permalink


I think you meant to say, "If you have to use it, make it short." I'm afraid we cannot accept this blog post.

Posted by: Mike Stern | Oct 1, 2014 12:57:28 AM

Interesting post. I would disagree somewhat with number 3. From personal experience I have had greater success with "sloppy" articles (ie fn's were missing and had to be filled) than with papers I spent days proof reading and re-editing. The "sloppy" articles were accepted faster. The only exception is peer review law journals (mostly EU and UK based) where such things can get you rejected within hours by the gatekeepers (editors who send your paper to the peer reviewers if in the gatekeeper's opinion "its good enough" to the peer reviewers. At that initial stage you must have all your is dotted and ts crossed or the peer reviewers will never see it. But as student edited US law school journals I found that not the case. BTW I am not a big believer in the peer review route - there is a huge amount of letterhead bias at that initial screening stage and unless you are at a prestige school or have a great track record of publication, you will likely be screened out. Moreover, I have seen (in the capacity of consultant to the peer review journal) that the same paper can attract wildly different reviews from peer reviewers which means the peer review process is not a measure of "outstanding" scholarship. The US system, while not perfect, is IMO far superior to the peer review law journals found outside the US. In the student edited system the US is blessed to have novel arguments can be introduced and innovative thinking is not stifled. Believe me, peer reviewers will reject excellent work because it did not fit with their personal views.

Posted by: USA | Oct 1, 2014 5:28:26 AM

Nice comment from Dan on the original linked post (and relevant to Orin's here):

"assuming we are still blogging past tenure and the arrival of grey hair or baldness (in some cases?), our opinions will still be raw in the sense of not fully cooked, worked out, thought through -- so I'm bullish on the long-term accuracy of the name"

Posted by: Marc DeGirolami | Oct 1, 2014 8:03:18 AM

Thank you for being here, Orin!

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Oct 1, 2014 8:21:50 AM

Here's my second Luddite comment this week.

I hate law review abstracts. I have read perhaps a handful that didn't strike me as grandiose, pretentious, and thoroughly discouraging of the prospect of reading the article itself. Given the nature of law review writing, which is rarely confines itself to the sort of narrow observations one finds in other disciplines, I really have to wonder what abstracts are doing here.

Clearly, the abstract has won: law reviews seem to insist upon them these days, and law review authors competing for the attention of editors can't afford to ignore the value of the "elevator pitch". But in its twinned need to simplify and sell, I fear that law review abstracts tend to smooth away all the wrinkles and modesty one should find in a well-written piece.

On another note, Orin's point about shorter titles is worth considering. I'm a serial offender here. In my own work, I might justify the two-step title by the fact that many generalists will simply not know much about the subjects I usually write about; I need both the "plain-vanilla" post-semicolon description and the pre-semicolon pun, which usually reflects some non-obvious theme or image I'll develop in the body of the article. I think this makes for memorable titles (usually), but I suppose I do this because I like puns that patiently unspool themselves. Perhaps my semicolon title is your abstract!


Posted by: Adam | Oct 1, 2014 9:32:31 AM

Although I agree with Orin's #5 that shorter titles are generally better than longer titles, I would add that your title should convey what the paper is actually about. I'm not sure whether law review editors care about this, but I want to make sure that your paper gets the readership it deserves. Scholars in your specialty will likely find it no matter its title; but folks engaging your area of expertise from the outside may never find it if the title is so cute or obtuse or general that it's not clear what the article engages.

Posted by: Thom | Oct 1, 2014 9:40:15 AM

Adam, thanks for the comment.

Grandiose or pretentious writing is always bad, but I don't see how "the nature of law review writing" resists abstracts. Sure, the shorter the description, the less the description will include caveats or limitations. But I tend to think that any idea can be expressed in pretty much any length: You can always express an idea or argument in the book-length version, the 50-page version, the 10-page version, the one-page version, or the one-sentence version. In my own writing, I also find that coming up with the shorter version is an important part of clarifying what I'm really saying: It often leads me to go back and edit the longer versions to make them tighter and less rambling.

As an aside, I also think editors like abstracts for a good reason. After it is published, the article will compete for the attention of readers just like it competed for the attention of editors at the submission stage. The abstract becomes the "elevator pitch" to entice readers to read your article, or at least your introduction. For better or worse, a lot of readers are skimmers and dabblers: They'll look over an article if it seems particularly interesting, but they won't commit to reading the whole thing before starting it. An overview of the article tells them what they're getting, which lets them decide whether to read on.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Oct 1, 2014 12:06:53 PM

Orin, great post. I've struggled with titles in my writing and haven't always been happy with the final results, but I wonder about the presumption against subtitles or in favor of the very short title. I agree that the [Cute, Allusive, Alliterative, Title with Puns]: [Long Explanatory Subtitle with Several Items Separated by Commas] model isn't very winning, but I have also been struck by how many articles have the completely uninformative (and often quite hokey) two- or three-word titles that suggest an almost breathless authority and comprehensiveness: herein lies the final resolution on some huge and complicated topic, but I offer no hint about my that resolution might be. I won't embarrass myself or others by naming names, but let's just say that if "War and Peace" and "Crime and Punishment" weren't already taken, they would be the names of (perhaps several) law review articles. Is there a middle ground?

Posted by: Peter Conti-Brown | Oct 1, 2014 9:16:09 PM

It's perhaps worth noting that Orin was offering tips about how to place in this system, not about what is sound practice. I think abstracts are useful, at least in the abstract, but as he knows, I think the focus on credulity-stretching novelty claims is deeply problematic. And while I've moved toward shorter titles some of the time, for the most part I think titles that use relevant search terms make more practical sense. But Orin is just making recommendations about the smart play, not the wise or sound move. What we do and how we do it is still our own professional responsibility.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Oct 1, 2014 10:22:37 PM

Orin and Paul,

I remember one Shabbat night a group of us were in Dan Markel's room, during a AALS annual meeting, speaking about article titles. I think we were in San Francisco that year. We shared stories about writing and publishing in the midst of our mini-Shabbat service and dinner.

One of us had just published a brilliant article with a catchy, one word title, like no other. She and Dan were discussing their thoughts on the subject. Dan believed it was important to include a readily recognizable search term. She agreed but added that it was also important to grasp the editors' attention with something unique sounding. It certainly worked for her. As for me, I think it necessary to be true to the subject; provide a readily recognizable label; and, if necessary, be descriptive in the subtitle.

That's my two cents worth in Dan's memory.

Posted by: Alexander Tsesis | Oct 1, 2014 11:34:33 PM

I'd be curious to hear Orin's (and other's) thoughts on article length as an aspect of placement. I know I have moved towards shorter articles in recent years. Is that an overall trend and what do people think of that, in general and as it affects chances of placement?

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Oct 1, 2014 11:53:39 PM

Howard, good question. I don't have a good sense of how article length impacts placement these days. I also tend to write on the short side relative to the norm -- a "full length" article for me is usually around 40 journal pages. But I don't know if there is an optimal length range for placement purposes.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Oct 2, 2014 1:08:19 AM

40 pages? That's it? Your articles always feel is if they're much longer than that.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Oct 2, 2014 10:11:28 AM

Paul, my short titles create an impression of profundity that make the article feel longer. Recent example here: http://www.greenbag.org/v16n1/v16n1_ex_post_kerr.pdf

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Oct 2, 2014 11:06:36 AM

Perhaps the metric problem herein is that different journals layout differently, making page counts unstable journal to journal. Does the old 25,000 word count target still ring true for most of your experiences, or are journals heading towards the 10,000 counts seen more often in non-legal journals?

Posted by: Anon | Oct 2, 2014 10:31:29 PM

You people give great suggestions. Brilliant article.

Posted by: RachaelSable | Jan 8, 2015 4:18:50 AM

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