Search This Blog

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Importance of an Engaging Abstract

When writing an article for a law journal, authors should pay very close attention to the abstract. The abstract is the first thing that an articles editor will read when reviewing the article (and it often may be the only thing that the articles editor reads). It is therefore very important to convey the article's argument in a clear and concise manner, and it is crucial that the abstract is carefully proofread -- as typos in this important part of the paper indicate a notable level of carelessness to the reviewer.

But but the best abstracts go beyond the basic function of informing readers about the article by drawing the reader into the article itself. Writing an abstract that is both informative and an effective hook may be difficult, but when done correctly, will ensure that the article will be read by far more people.

Before providing an example of what I think is an exceptional abstract, I would like to give some background on how I came across it. UCLA Law offers a number of "perspectives" seminars, which meet about once a month over the course of the full year and are designed to introduce students to unconventional, or under-covered areas of the law, or legal practice. I am currently enrolled in a perspectives seminar entitled "History of the Common Law," which is taught by Samuel Bray and Jonathan Zasloff. Each session, we discuss several texts on common law institutions, and investigate the development of these institutions and why the common law took the path that it did, rather than go an alternative route.

For today's session, we are learning about common law felonies and the death penalty. Our assigned texts were Douglas Hay's essay, "Property, Authority, and the Criminal Law," (published in Albion's Fatal Tree: Crime and Society in Eighteenth-Century England), John Langbein's responding essay, "Albion's Fatal Flaws," and Peter Linebaugh's response to Langbein, "(Marxist) Social History and (Conservative) Legal History: A Reply to Professor Langbein."

This last article by Linebaugh contains an example of an excellent abstract. It not only summarizes the article, but uses strong language and humor to draw the reader into the article itself:

In an anthology entitled Albion's Fatal Tree several social historians examined eighteenth-century English society through its laws and their application. In this article, Professor Linebaugh, one of the book's editors, responds to Professor Langbein's ferocious challenge to the Marxist interpretation of the century's criminal law provided by one of the essayists, Douglas Hay. Labeling Langbein's legal scholarship "ahistorical" elitism, Professor Linebaugh contrasts it with his colleagues' emphasis on customs and attitudes of ordinary people from the "bottom up." He proceeds to illustrate how Langbein's functionalist approach causes him to misconstrue Hay's point and misinterpret the evidence. Professor Linebaugh paints a world in which underpaid workers customarily took goods from their employers and corrupt trial jurors were drawn from propertied elite classes. He argues that Langbein's narrow vision prevents him from appreciating that because law was rooted in community custom, a more democratic jury may have sanctioned such appropriation. Finally, Professor Linebaugh rebuts Langbein's assertion that criminal law was no more central to society than was garbage collection by graphically illustrating eighteenth-century London's preoccupation with waste disposal. He ends by analogizing the century's criminal justice system to the flush toilet.
 If you are now interested in the article's citation, it is: 60 N.Y.U. L. Rev. 212 (1985).

No comments:

Post a Comment