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Thursday, March 20, 2008

How do you write?

It seems to me there are two main ways to approach writing scholarship. One is to write the piece out in your own words, essay-style, perhaps in a somewhat broad or skeletal form, then go back and fill-in citations and support, perhaps changing language to quote from or track sources, and fleshing out some parts of the piece in the course of discussing sources. The other is to write and footnote at the same time. For me, this has meant sitting down with all the sources I am using for each portion of the paper, getting the language of each sentence and paragraph precisely right, quoting or tracking the sources, and filling in the footnotes, including pin cites and parentheticals. It basically means reading, researching (or at least reviewing research), and writing at the same time.

In the past, I have been in the latter camp. One benefit is that even a first draft tends to look fairly complete. But it is a laborious approach, requiring that I literally surround myself with sources spread out on the floor, flipping through books, articles, and cases just to write a single complete sentence. Given the time it takes to write just one paragraph, it can be hard to do anything in short openings of time, say in between class and a faculty meeting--big blocks of time are needed. And it can be hard to gird yourself to sit down and do something because it feels so slow and labored--it lends itself to writer's block.

For my current project, therefore, I am trying the first approach. I am going to write it out, unsourced and without footnotes, in my own words as a first draft--as you would write an unfootnoted essay. I know (basically) what I want to say (I have done most of the key research) and can get it down in this quasi-essay form. I then will sit down with the sources as part of the process of editing and fleshing out my arguments. I will leave some parts and arguments initially skeletal and fill those in later, when I sit down with the sources in front of me. I think this approach works well for this paper because 1) it uses (relatively speaking) fewer sources and will not have a lot of long string cites; 2) I already workshopped the topic, which caused me to work through the entire argument and gave me some language to use in that first draft (something I think I may do again in the future, if it helps the writing); and 3) some parts of this paper already have appeared in print, in slightly different and shorter form. But if I get a draft completed in this form in the next couple of weeks, even if I then must labor through the sourcing process, I will feel like I have at least initially accomplished something.

This may mean the answer as to the best approach is "it depends." It depends on the type of project and it depends on the prior literature and authority to be incorporated into the paper and it depends on what stage I am coming into the writing. And it depends on how quickly I need a feeling of having accomplished something. And maybe we really all do some combination of the two approaches.

But I would like to know: How do others go about the actual writing process?

Posted by Howard Wasserman on March 20, 2008 at 09:15 AM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink


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» Scholars Ponder The Process of Writin' and Citin' from The Faculty Lounge
Howard Wasserman over at Prawfs has a great conversation going on about this narrow but absolutely critical schoarship question: how do you write? Do you draft the piece freestyle, straight from your head, lightly cited? Or do you write 'n [Read More]

Tracked on Mar 21, 2008 10:39:32 AM


Good post, thank you.

I prefer to write on topics where I really have something to say. This means I might know what the scholarship has to say, roughly at least. So I full steam ahead into a good outline, then start fleshing that out while reading and contemplating sources. I use abbreviations for cites and do the formatting and pretty-making at the end.

Posted by: Kimberly Alderman | Dec 7, 2008 6:09:08 PM

I've tended to take the slog, annotate-as-you-go approach. And, each time I start something new, I say I'm going to switch to Howard's first, non-slog approach. But, I don't.

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Mar 21, 2008 2:08:13 PM

In reading some of these responses and thinking this through a bit further, I would suggest that one further benefit to "write it out now, cite/edit/bolster later" is that it could help limit over-citation, which I find to be one my major problems. One of the things that makes legal scholarship so hard to slog through is not the number of footnotes, but the number of footnotes with string cites of multiple sources with parentheticals to support a point. Surrounding myself with all my sources as I go may lead to the tendency to try to use all of those sources in the footnotes. Just a further thought.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Mar 20, 2008 6:55:59 PM

Definitely the second method. Do the research, do an outline, have it all in front of me, write with quotes and citations as I go.

Posted by: Martin | Mar 20, 2008 5:55:41 PM

For me, it totally depends on what I'm working on and how I feel about it. There are basically three different approaches that I take:

If I have an idea--for an article, a section of an article, a paragraph, an argument, whatever--that just grabs me to the extent that the phrases are swirling around my brain, I go ahead and write it. I just let it flow, and then go back and edit it into shape at some later time. This often happens with introductory sections, the core of an article, or a defense against a particular critique.

If, however, the ideas and writing are coming more slowly, then I commit to tackling one section or piece, and do it methodically. This often applies to "background" sections, technical arguments, or other pieces that I don't really want to write, but that are necessary for the piece.

But, in some cases, when I am suffering from absolute writer's block, I force myself to sit down and write something through. This allows me to get past the block and put something on the paper. Whether the final product looks anything like that first cathartic release is always up in the air.

Posted by: Hillel Levin | Mar 20, 2008 2:36:46 PM

I really like this post and its something i, and i suspect others among us, think about frequently. I have experimented with all sorts of approaches and i think, as you suggest Howard, that different approaches fit different stages, projects, moods...For me, my preference is to pull away from the resources and just sit back at a coffee shop without internet communication and write up my own stuff. But of course, there will be many sections in which you are reacting to precise language of cases, statutes, other thinkers, and you need the sources with you.

Posted by: Orly Lobel | Mar 20, 2008 12:59:01 PM

I always follow the same process. I first get an idea for a topic based upon working on a case, reading an article, teaching, etc. I then go through Westlaw to flesh out the idea. As I do this, I keep a record of each case/article I've read and start placing them into an outline. This outline eventually develops into the sections and subsections of my article. By the time I put finger to keyboard, I have all of my arguments laid out as well as which particular cases and articles I will cite for each argument. There's certainly an argument for reversing the process, but my worry is that by doing so, I will be making unfounded assertions and then grasping for authority as opposed to letting the authority guide my writing. As you say, the benefit of my method is that my first draft of an article is pretty close to the completed piece. This is indeed laborious, but I would rather have everything planned out on the front end, rather than having to make fundamental changes in the article after creating a draft and realizing that authority is against me.

Posted by: Colin Miller | Mar 20, 2008 11:14:43 AM

great post! thanks for the insights

Posted by: new prof | Mar 20, 2008 10:02:21 AM

It is an interesting topic, but people don't want to give you honest answers to this question, b/c many lawyers will declare that there is a "correct" way to write, and the other way "lacks detail."

I learned the hard way, early on, to never tell people exactly how I write, because if people see my non-finished product they think less of me.

Posted by: S.cotus | Mar 20, 2008 9:36:03 AM

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