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Tuesday, August 07, 2007

You Write What You Read

    Liz Glazer's useful post on jargon -- which received so many funny and insightful comments -- got me thinking.  There is a saying that I heard from a prominent business person when I was on a committee once:  "You make what you measure."  He was speaking in the context of Law Schools and U.S. News. 

    You could say something similar about scholars: we write what we read.  I certainly find myself writing articles in the style of the pieces I happen to be reading.  Sometimes this is a good thing because it places me within a scholarly conversation.  But sometimes it results in plain old bad writing.  It's a familiar problem.  Law students who read badly written appellate opinions and convoluted law review articles have it.  Clerks who are reading the same materials have it. And law professors suffer from it as well.  What's to be done?  For one, read better things.  Reading good journalism might help.  One fantastic writer said she picked an article that she thought was really excellent and used it as a model for her piece.  This strategy clearly worked for her.   

    Those who write in certain areas about which its easy to tell compelling stories (Constitutional law comes to mind) may already be reading things that they want to model their writing on.  In civil procedure (a notoriously under-theorized field - and that's not just jargon - and also a rather technical one), things are a bit more difficult.   I have been trying to read things outside my topic area that were particularly well received or just seem really interesting.   My favorite piece?  Not in law at all.  It is Michael Walzer's "The Problem of Dirty Hands."  What's yours?

Posted by Alexandra Lahav on August 7, 2007 at 09:43 AM | Permalink


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I think the jury should stay out on length limits for a few years. I know at least some journals at which articles that were too long were "grandfathered" in under the theory that they had been started before (in one case, many years before) the word limits were promulgated. I expect them to be more seriously enforced a few years out.

My point was partly that cutesy titles are disfavored, but also that overly specific ones are. I actually have a lot more thoughts about optimal titling in law reviews, but I haven't fully fleshed out my theory. Observation of existing titles may be a bit misleading since at least at most journals, titles can be changed after acceptance, and I suspect some are.

I guess I'm not sure about how jargon works as a *positive* proxy rather than a negative proxy (like the examples you suggest). Do you mean to say that there are L&E editors who will reject good L&E pieces because they don't use the word "bilateral monopoly" often enough?

Posted by: William Baude | Aug 9, 2007 8:32:36 PM

I wish I could agree that eds look for "smoothness" of reading as a standard, but based on what's out there (much of it ponderous) I'm skeptical. I think there should be more legal writing in the short, informal essay idiom but I know lots of people who shy away from this form because they worry that law review eds won't take it seriously (inadvertent use of jargon). The recent attempts at uniform standards for length are a welcome gesture in the direction of brevity, but it doesn't seem to me that the word limits are being enforced too strictly because I've seen plenty of articles in top journals that flout them.

I'm not sure how titles fit in. If your point is that cutesy ones are off-putting, and that decreases the chances of acceptance for the attached article, I think that's right. Yet we see enough of these that someone out there must like them. Plus, there are some titles that are both descriptive and funny, such as Dave Hoffman's "Best Puffery Article Ever". I continue to be annoyed by the "descriptive phrase:subject matter" construction, though I see its usefulness. Shorter, punchier titles seem to be coming back and I like that. There was a prawfs post about short titles a while back; I think "Givings" was the shortest one mentioned.

About jargon as proxy, it's often a proxy for political/methodological preferences. If you're not a fan of neoclassical economics, terms like "bilateral monopoly" and "socially optimal" will come off as off-putting catchphrases. However, if you do tend to be an L&E sort, my guess is you find many of the pieces written by Pierre Schlag to be choked with impenetrable jargon. (Though I think everyone can be amused by, if not agree with, his recent essay "Spam Jurisprudence, Air Law, and the Rank Anxiety of Nothing Happening").

Posted by: Dave | Aug 9, 2007 4:59:45 PM

I do think it's probably right that most editors use "does this read like I think a law review article should read?" proxies. I'm more curious about what those proxies actually are in practice.

My sense is that a lot of editors really do want pieces that read relatively smoothly (although "smoothly" is in the context of people who read a lot of law review articles and appellate opinions, not New Yorker stories). And footnotes almost certainly do reassure the editor too. I'm less certain that the use of unusual terms is such a proxy in practice.

I also think that in fact the *title* of a piece is a more important proxy than authors realize and that titles like "The Supreme Court Did it Again!: How Justice Scalia Let Catholicism Trump Textualism in Interpreting Section 3301(b) of the National Labor Relations Act" tend to make an editor less likely to accept the piece. But a whole lot of authors appear to submit pieces of this format, so maybe they know something I don't.

Posted by: William Baude | Aug 9, 2007 1:42:21 PM

Obviously my example is a bit of a caricature of the selection process. We all know that law review editors don't approach articles with checklists for jargon. But i do think that law review eds tend to choose articles that read and otherwise seem like previous ones, and that they tend to opt for similarity to previous work in terms of form (footnotes; extended disquisitions about preexisting law) and language (a stilted, formal style; and use of unusual terms that tend to reappear in other articles). It's clearly a poor proxy for quality, but I've always thought that law review eds (who are in all likelihood far less experienced in reading and critiquing legal scholarship than Will was when he was an ed) tend to rely on these poor proxies. Some eds may be turned off by jargon, but I suspect they're the exception not the rule.

Posted by: Dave | Aug 9, 2007 1:06:27 PM

Are there really law review editors who use "under-theorized," "orthogonal," and "normative" as *positive* indicators? I didn't know any when I was a law review editor, but I'd love to hear from anybody who was one and did.

Posted by: William Baude | Aug 9, 2007 1:17:22 AM

Related, perhaps people use jargon not only because it's in what they read but because they suspect (consciously or otherwise) that their reader-selectors expect it. A law review ed who doesn't really know that much might read an article and say "Hey, 'under-theorized', 'orthogonal', 'normative'--this person knows the game. This must be a decent piece--or at least one that will pass for decent." Related, an article written in an informal or casual style might be taken as not in the right idiom. I'm sure that's part of the reason that footnotes remain so ubiquitous and overdone--fear that law review eds might dismiss as "poorly supported" a piece that lacks the obsessive citation that is standard operating procedure in our field (annoying though it may be).

Posted by: Dave | Aug 9, 2007 12:25:48 AM

I can't imagine having a "favorite piece." I'll read anything (outside legal theory/philosophy of law, and in no particular order) by Jon Elster, Martha Nussbaum, Joel Kupperman, Amartya Sen, John Cottingham, Nicholas Rescher, Hilary Putnam, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Pierre Hadot, Kristin Shrader-Frechette, Michael P. Lynch, Jonathan Lear, Deirdre McCloskey, Philip Kitcher, Jay Garfield, Oliver Leaman, Pico Iyer, Francois Jullien, Jonardon Ganeri, Allen Wood, Ellizabeth Anderson, Ian Shapiro, Russell Hardin, Gerald Gaus, Robert Goodin, G.A. Cohen, Russell Jacoby, Chad Hansen, Raymond Tallis, Onora O'Neill, Julia Annas, Richard Kraut, Avrum Stroll, Evelyn Fox Keller, Amelie Rorty, J. David Vellaman, Peter Goldie, Richard Sorabji, Jurgen Habermas, Ronald Giere, Ian Hacking, John Dupre, Michael Luntley, R.C. Lewontin, Gary Snyder, Dale Jamieson....

Incidentally, I prefer C.A.J. Coady's approach to the "dirty hands" thesis (he's scheduled to pen the entry on same for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; it should be worth the wait).

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Aug 7, 2007 2:35:41 PM

Every few years, I re-read Joseph Mitchell's "Up in the Old Hotel," which is a collection of non-fiction pieces. Here's a link to the book's page on Amazon:


Posted by: PBB | Aug 7, 2007 1:48:44 PM

Great post (and I say that not only because you complimented mine). Perhaps unsurprisingly, my favorite piece is George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language" (available here: http://www.george-orwell.org/Politics_and_the_English_Language/0.html). As some may know, in this piece, Orwell articulated an intellectual and moral duty to write clearly. The piece criticizes, among other things, the use of jargon and trite metaphors, so I like it for its message. But its form is also inspiring, as the essay is a model of the style of writing about which it's written.

Posted by: Liz Glazer | Aug 7, 2007 9:58:55 AM

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