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Friday, October 24, 2014

Writing, Fast and Slow

Zachary Kramer's thoughtful post, "The Slow Writing Movement," brings up a broader choice between two approaches to producing legal scholarship.   Fast versus slow.  Or what I think of as the Chicago style versus the Harvard style.  

The Chicago style is to pump out a bunch of articles every year.  When you get an idea for an article, whether big or small, you write it up.  The idea is to produce a steady stream of scholarship. Not every article will be a home run.  But among your articles enough will be a hit that you'll produce a major body of influential work.  I call this the Chicago style because it is most closely associated with the traditional faculty culture at the University of Chicago Law School.  

On the other hand, the Harvard style is to write less but bigger.  You focus on quality instead of quantity, not sending out an article unless and until you think it is the definitive statement about that area of law.  You won't win any productivity awards.  But what you send out should be a signficant statement -- if not a home run, at least a double or triple.  And by focusing your efforts on really big ideas, the thinking runs, you'll produce a major body of influential work.  I call this the Harvard style because I have heard it associated with the traditional faculty culture at Harvard Law School.  

These diferences partly reflect different assumptions about what advances knowledge.   The Chicago approach makes sense if you think authors are poor at predicting what ideas will take off.   Better to write up everything and let the audience of readers decide.  There's a risk that any one article may be a dud.  But then you miss all the shots you don't take.  By putting lots of ideas out there, the thinking runs, you're making the maximum contribution to the world of ideas.  

In contrast, the Harvard approach makes sense if you think that really big articles are the ones that change the terms of the debate.  A single profound work will change how people think more than a dozen less-developed pieces.  As a result, taking your time with one big piece is better than wasting your time on lots of smaller ideas.  By giving each article a long and sustained focus, the thinking runs, you're making the maximum contribution to the world of ideas.

My own sense is that neither approach is necessarily better.  It depends on the person.  Some professors hit on ideas relatively fully formed.  For them, sitting on an article over time would just be lazy. Other professors work best by mulling over ideas over time.  For them, putting out lots of articles quickly would mean sending out articles half-baked.   And a lot of us are a mix of the two.  Some articles come out quickly Chicago-style while others come out slowly Harvard-style.   (With that said, going back to my earlier post, my recommendation for first-year professors is the same: Even if you see yourself as a Harvard-style writer over the long run, there are good reasons to start out Chicago-style.)

Finally, I should clarify that the labels "Chicago style" and "Harvard style" more accurately reflect the faculty cultures at those two schools ten or twenty years ago than today.   Lateral moves and entry-level hiring have blended the categories over time.  In particular, Harvard crossed the streams when it hired away several Chicago style professors from Chicago. An obvious example is Cass Sunstein, perhaps the epitome of the Chicago style, who probably wrote a new article during the time you read this blog post.  

(Title with apologies to Daniel Kahneman.)

Posted by Orin Kerr on October 24, 2014 at 02:18 AM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink


"Better to write up everything and let the audience of readers decide." It is probably instructive that this approach is not followed (indeed, disdained) by academics in most other disciplines. See Martha Nussbaum's (a Chicago professor!) Green Bag article linked to a few days ago (http://prawfsblawg.blogs.com/prawfsblawg/2014/10/reposted-interview-tips-for-faculty.html#more).

Posted by: WG | Oct 24, 2014 8:07:46 AM

I think that a great middle ground is being a "Chicago style professor" pre-tenure and a "Harvard style professor" post-tenure. This way, you can be productive for tenure, but in the process, lay the groundwork for more significant, big idea post-tenure articles. Post-tenure, I think articles should be more ambitious, which usually take longer to write, but unlike pre-tenure, one will have the time to invest in these projects. Nevertheless, as a newly tenured person, I am having a heck of a time convincing myself that I don't have to submit an article in February, and I can take longer to workshop my current project. Even post-tenure, there is a fear that people will perceive huge time gaps between articles as indicating a lack of productivity.

Note that I am using the term "Chicago style professor" loosely - even now, those folks produce 3 or 4 long articles a year, and I am thinking more along the lines of 1 or 2 longer articles and a couple of shorter pieces a year pre-tenure.

Posted by: Franita | Oct 24, 2014 9:00:19 AM

WG, I think those with Ph.D.s are generally more likely to follow the Harvard style rather than the Chicago style. The interesting question is how that plays out in law.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Oct 24, 2014 12:37:06 PM

I have Chicago-Style proclivities myself (I use that phrase in the same sense as "Kosher-Style"), but my advice to juniors would be more or less the opposite of Orin's and Franita's. I think writing good law review articles is hard, and it's hard ever to develop the skill if you are on a writing treadmill from the moment you hit campus (or the moment you hit the teaching market, or the moment you take your VAP, or the moment you get admitted to YLS, or . . . ). The biggest problem I see with folks on the teaching market and with non-tenured faculty is they write a ton of stuff, but with too little insight or depth.

Obviously, productivity is important, and a lot depends on the culture of the school and how good a job the school's senior faculty do of working with junior faculty. But I tend to advise new professors to spend their first year reading and listening a lot, sending very early, rough drafts to trusted senior colleagues, and really working those drafts over. That's a time-consuming process. The result isn't perfection -- and all of us, juniors especially, need to avoid thinking that perfection is the goal, or the work will never get done -- but it tends to be a lot better, and the junior prof will enrich all of the skills that make for scholarly success. After a year or so, you get better at this, and you have enough projects in the queue at any time that the productivity will come if you focus on it. But I think most earliest-career work by most profs (myself included) tends to be quite immature, and you need to give yourself the tools and space to develop scholarly maturity.

OTOH, given my track record, I'm the last person to advise a non-tenured faculty member on how to get tenure!

Posted by: Sam Bagenstos | Oct 24, 2014 2:05:10 PM


With reference to Dan Kahneman, perhaps the Chicago style is System 1 writing and the Harvard style is System 2 writing. This would mean that the Chicago style is more intuitive and the Harvard style more deliberative. This, in turn, might mean that Chicago style papers tend to contain better theses and bolder ideas, and that Harvard style papers tend to be better-argued. The upshot, perhaps, is that we should all come to our initial ideas for articles with System 1 Chicago-style thinking. If we're experts, then our intuitions, assuming a stable environment, will tend to be correct. Then, as we research and draft the articles, we should switch to Harvard style System 2 thinking. Which is probably what most of us already do anyway.

Thanks for the interesting post.


Posted by: Steven R. Morrison | Oct 25, 2014 1:34:13 PM

Interesting post, Orin. As to the untenured, and the division of views above, I think those advocating Chicago style may mean this as an admonition to get something out early that's on a smaller scale, rather than waiting a couple of years until something is completely perfect -- but not necessarily as a rule to follow throughout the untenured years. It may be a corrective to the risk-averse tendencies of most at the earliest juncture.

For me, it's hard to discuss different productivity rates and styles as though they are independent of disciplinary breadth/focus. Many who publish more zippily do so across a greater diversity of fields. Whatever the merits of this, which is a separate discussion, I tend to doubt that aspect is being recommended to junior faculty; again, I'd guess that what's being suggested is that they be more willing to break behemoths into "projects" of smaller, tightly connected pieces largely within the same field. All of course subject to the caution that the culture at a particular school (or target school) deserves attention.

P.S. Probably because I am hungry, I find myself thinking of this as "tapas style" vs. "Chicago style," with the latter (quite differently) being a big pie-like product that is impossible to ingest at one sitting. Perhaps you'd serve that by the slice, and reclaim your sense of Harvard style as a "grinder."

Posted by: Ed Swaine | Oct 27, 2014 10:28:07 AM

One advantage of the Chicago-style would be learning. For a new professor, putting out a rapid series of small papers would teach them what editors and reviewers like, and how to revise and complete papers.

Posted by: Barry | Oct 27, 2014 1:15:19 PM

Why bother joining the academy if you are worried about "Chicago Style" vs. "Harvard Style"? Do what you like best and which makes you happy. If you rely on an uncodified standard rather than your own judgment, you have essentially given away the best part of this job: the freedom to choose the style, shape, and timing of your work product.

Posted by: andy | Oct 28, 2014 3:49:50 AM

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