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Monday, November 07, 2016

Best writing practices

Hi all, it’s good to be back at Prawfs for another guest stint. I’ve written for this site more times than I can count, but this is my first time guesting as a Texan, having just joined the faculty of the University of Houston Law Center, where I’m also serving as research dean.

In that latter capacity, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to encourage productivity both for others and for myself, and this has led to some reflection on best practices for optimal writing. I’ve found that working on scholarship is the easiest part of the job to put off. Teaching and service typically happen on regular, no-exceptions schedules—classes and meetings require your presence and start and end at specific times—while writing can almost always be delayed until some theoretical future time of idealized productivity.

So in this initial post, I’ll share three of the leading suggestions I’ve read about how to maximize writing productivity based on my admittedly casual perusals of the surprisingly vast literature on this topic (the existence of which leads me to believe I’m not alone in often finding it challenging to stay on-task with respect to writing). The question I’m most interested in is whether these general best practices for writing translate into good practices for legal scholars, and/or whether there are other techniques folks have found helpful.

All this follows after the break.

First: write early. Whether there is an ideal time during the day to write is to some extent idiosyncratic. Charles Dickens and Ernest Hemingway were morning people who cranked out the words when they got up and finished by afternoon. Robert Frost and Hunter S. Thompson were nightowls who got their best work done later in the day. But there is some evidence that most people are best served by writing earlier on, particularly soon after waking up. For one thing, to the extent that writing requires mental focus and will power, those qualities are at their peak earlier in the day, especially the morning before other tasks and distractions have the chance to sap our energy and attention. Neuropsychologists have also found that the part of the brain associated with creative activity—the prefrontal cortex—tends to be the most active earlier in the day, so that if you’re thinking through issues or working out a particularly difficult conceptual problem, you’re more likely to succeed after your morning coffee than your evening dinner.

Second: write regularly. Whether you get your best work done in the dark of the earliest morning or of deepest midnight, one universal nearly all productive writers agree on is: find a pattern you like and stick to it. Part of this is about efficiency. Making writing a regular part of your life makes it increasingly likely that you’ll actually write, turning it into an expected and standard part of your day rather than something you have to spend time and effort making time for. But there’s also the related point that writing regularly makes what can be a challenging task easier. Haruki Marukami unsurprisingly put this much more eloquently than I could in describing his own routine: “The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s an act of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.”

Third: write often. One of my favorite quotes about writing comes from the late, great Roger Ebert, who said something along the lines of “I’ve developed a reputation as the fastest writer in town. But I’m don’t write faster than others. I just spend less time not writing.” This is certainly closely related to having a regular schedule (if you commit to writing every day, you’ll likely be writing more often just by virtue of committing to doing so on a daily basis). And this one rings true to me for intuitive reasons. The analogy seems that writing is like a muscle. Exercise it frequently and it gets stronger. Fail to do so and it atrophies.

The question for this audience is: Do these notions, most of which come from looking at novelists or essayists, hold true for legal and/or academic writers as well (I’m not sure that Marukami’s self-mesmerism is something that would be helpful in writing scholarship)? There are a number of potential distinctions: scholarship requires research and entails a different sort of creativity (persuasive argument as opposed to something more akin to pure creativity). And since writing is only part of the professor’s job, is it reasonable to expect to have a regular writing schedule given the need to prioritize students and the competing demands of service? Or does that mean that picking and insisting on a schedule is all the more important?

Finally, consider one alternative approach I’ve observed in some colleagues, which I’ll call the binge-writing model. The notion here is that given the inherent disorder of the academic schedule, it’s not really possible to write regularly, and perhaps not even that effective. I have colleagues who sincerely believe that writing is best in concentrated marathon chunks when blocks of time open up (or if they don’t, in a mad series of sleepless nights). The idea, I suppose, is that this kind of fugue-based approach produces more interesting and coherent work than plodding along gradually, adding a bit at a time.

Again, it’s good to be back and Prawfs and I look forward to thoughts on these or any other best writing practices.


Posted by Dave_Fagundes on November 7, 2016 at 11:29 AM in Life of Law Schools, Science, Teaching Law | Permalink


Let me add one more: Start writing. It is always possible to do more research, and therefore defer beginning to write. As in so many other endeavors, perfect is the enemy of good. At some point, and sooner is better, it is imperative to stop researching and start writing. You can always identify and fill gaps.

Posted by: Steve Lubet | Nov 7, 2016 3:25:19 PM

# 3 is why I urge academics to blog, write op-eds, write supplement essays, etc.. By writing a bunch of smaller things in and around larger pieces (that require more time to research), you exercise that writing muscle.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Nov 7, 2016 5:29:01 PM

Binge-writing might work for articles, but most scholars in monograph-oriented fields seem to discover sooner or later that regularity is essential if one hopes to complete a more substantial work.

Posted by: anon | Nov 7, 2016 6:38:46 PM

@Steve: Totally. I sometimes go swimming in our school's really nice but freezing-cold pool, and by far the worst part is jumping in and starting. The first minute or so is really unpleasant, but after that I barely notice the water temperature. But that minute sucks enough that sometimes I find myself putting off just jumping in and getting it the hell over with. So it is with writing: After a long spell, it can feel like putting on a wet bathing suit (to borrow Jessie Hill's phrasing in a blog post here some time ago), but once you get back in the flow you'll wonder what the big deal was. So yeah, just start writing.

@Howard: I once had a senior colleague at another school adamantly insist that junior professors should not blog. HIs argument was pretty simple and certainly seems right at first glance: any time spent blogging takes away from more important writing. But the premise that writing is zero-sum isn't right. I've found that the contrary is often the case. Writing different kinds of things can feed into a synergy both substantively and by flexing the old writing muscle.

@anon: Agree with the premise that binge-writing can't work too well for longer works, like full-length books (unless you're Kerouac and your co-author is Benzedrine). But law is an interesting case. Our "articles" are often closer to short monographs than the length of articles in other fields (I've been reading a lot of psychology work recently and those are no more than 15pp each, of which much is charts and endnotes). Law review articles are 25k words minimum, often over 35k words. Shorter than a full-length book, sure, but not the kind of thing you can just crank out in a crazy all-nighter. So I'm not sure how the binge-writing approach would work w/r/t the peculiar form that is the law review article. All I can say with confidence is that it doesn't work for me.

Posted by: DF | Nov 7, 2016 10:27:13 PM

The "inherent disorder of the academic schedule"? Seriously? You know when your classes are. You can set office hours to reasonably manage your interaction with students. Committee meetings and such presumably are scheduled in advance. It would seem to me that whatever impediments to writing there may be, finding time to write isn't one of them.

Posted by: Doug Richmond | Nov 8, 2016 7:47:05 AM

@Doug: I sought to express in my post that I don't accept the binge-writing approach or its premises. That paragraph represented my best attempt to characterize others' approach to writing practice. That said, I think the distinctive challenge of the academic lifestyle is that order is not imposed on you; you have to create it yourself. So there is a higher risk of disorder since using one's time well happens only if you make it happen. And again while I'm seeking here to characterize a perspective I don't share, I think the disorder in academic time is not a product of its scarcity but rather its lack of external required scheduling.

Posted by: DF | Nov 11, 2016 10:26:28 AM

Another one that works for me: create your own deadlines.

Posted by: Orly Lobel | Nov 14, 2016 7:39:26 PM

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