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Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Market for Comments on Drafts

How extensive should comments on draft articles be? Those of you looking to send out articles in this spring's submission cycle have no doubt circulated drafts to colleagues in the hopes of receiving comments aimed at improving your work. I received several requests to read articles over the break. I enjoy reading the work of colleagues, and I take my role in returning comments very seriously. But being a good colleague is also time-consuming. Someone once told me that the temporal cost of collegiality is the most unexpected aspect of legal academia. Indeed.

You probably know which scholars in your field tend to provide the best comments. You may even have a regular “go to” person, someone who will spend a long time on your draft and return comments that are particularly cogent and perceptive.  Other times, you may want to send your draft to a reader because of his or her status in the field. Or you may want to send it to someone with whom you disagree. so that you can better understand your detractor's perspective. 

Here is my question: What does the market for comments look like? In my experience, it is opaque and little is written about it. Some readers like to give stylistic comments, while others tend to be big picture people and prefer to provide a 30,000-foot perspective. Some readers provide their comments orally, some mark up drafts in track changes, others provide comments in the text of an email, and yet others still will attach a separate memorandum for you. There is probably a market lurking on the commentator's side as well, in terms of prioritizing whose work to read, how closely, and in which order. Surely people value colleagiality, like being acknowledged, and are willing to read drafts in part for that reason.

I’ve created a typology of the different kinds of readers in the market. It consists of the kinds of draft commentators I have come across. My list is not exhaustive, and you are welcome to add to it.

(1)  The Looks Good-er: This is the scholar who gives minimal suggestions apart from saying "it looks good.” Of course, he or she usually still expects to be acknowledged.

(2)   The Schoolmarm Grammarian: This is the colleague who nit-picks at your typos. This can be helpful, though if you are seeking out her services repeatedly there may be a greater issue lurking.

(3)   The Change-It-Around Dude: This colleague insists that you rearrange your whole piece, replacing the introduction with the conclusion and the conclusion with something else.

(4)   The Big-Picture Tinkerer: This scholar doesn't care about language and instead looks at the big picture. This can be very helpful for you to frame your argument better.

(5)   The All-Around Mensch: This is the colleague who takes the time to read your piece with a critical eye over the course of many months, who encourages you to send subsequent drafts of it to him, and who is able to provide both stylistic and big-picture comments. This is rare.

Admittedly, I’m not sure where I fit in my own schema.

When a draft from a colleague arrives, I’ll usually print it, email the person to acknowledge receiving it, and ask for a deadline. I like to spend a long time on a piece. I definitely have my own style of providing comments. First, when I read the printed copy, I tend to write notes in the margins. I’ll then usually send the author a PDF of my mark-up with my hand-written comments in the margins. Second, I’ll usually also send the author a 2-3 page memorandum highlighting what I liked about the piece but pointing out places where I think there could be improvement.

I have no idea if this is the right way to do it or not. That’s because I don’t have a good sense of what the rest of the market for comments looks like. We are all dealing with idiosyncratic experiences and asymmetrical information here, and it’s time to create some norms about how this process should be carried out. This deserves a thread, so let’s start one.

In the comments, please explain what styles for commentary have worked particularly well for you (or, if you are so inclined, which have not). And if there is someone in your field who is particularly known for giving excellent feedback on drafts, please tell us why that’s so and how this person does it. Indeed, feel free to mention him or her by name as well.

Posted by Eugene Mazo on January 14, 2015 at 11:51 AM in Prawf Blogger Census | Permalink


are you being facetious or does anyone actually acknowledge a looks-gooder? and do looks-gooders actually read articles or is that comment code for i glanced at the abstract and let too much time pass and i am officially not going to ever read this and give you real comments?

there probably ought to be a category for those whose comments focus on style, sentence construction, and general quality and clarity of writing, e.g. rearranging sentences within a paragraph rather than ideas within a paper. perhaps the english professor instead of the schoolmarm.

meanwhile, so many of my past commenters have seemed to be change-it-around-dude that i tend to assume it's not them, it's me... maybe part of the typology is that opposites attract, so schoolmarms are unlikely to get schoolmarmish feedback and change-it-around-dudes unlikely to get change-it-around-ish advice (and the bikini has always already split the piece into two pieces).

Posted by: aj | Jan 21, 2015 11:03:45 PM

Far more common than any of these is the flip-flopper, who says he/she will review your article and never gets around to doing it. When I see someone thank ten or fifteen commenters, I wonder: what I am missing?

Posted by: ML | Jan 21, 2015 1:41:10 PM

The Bookie: "This really should be a book rather than an article."

Posted by: anon | Jan 15, 2015 8:06:47 AM

Great post! That's O-R-I-N.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Jan 15, 2015 1:16:44 AM

Writers will probably do well to diversify their portfolios. They can intentionally seek out comments from the Expert-in-Another-Field, the Change-it-Around-Dude, the Big-Picture-Tinkerer, and maybe even one Schoolmarm-Grammarian. I'll bet it's easy to predict who'll send what comments: in my experience, readers remain pretty consistent in their typology.

Posted by: Ron Wright | Jan 14, 2015 8:27:13 PM

Don't forget The Bikini, whose advice is always: "This is really two pieces."

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Jan 14, 2015 11:04:52 AM

This post is very helpful as it reminds me I owe comments to friends who have sent me their drafts. (Hopefully, they are still my friends).

One category you left unmentioned is the Expert-in-Another-Field. If you choose the right Expert and make it clear to the Expert why you are seeking her advice, you can vastly improve your piece by learning more about an analogous issue in another area of law and as the most recent scholarship in that area that you otherwise might have missed. (You also can avoid making silly errors in terminology and reassure yourself that you have correctly summarized the gist of the Other Field's debate). That being said, if you consult too many Experts, you run the risk of being sent in too many directions, many of which may prove to be dead ends.

Posted by: Miriam Baer | Jan 14, 2015 10:01:53 AM

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