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Thursday, October 2, 2014

Well-Intentioned, But Flawed, Advice on Student Note Submission

Over at The Girls Guide to Law School, Jonathan Burns has this post on advice for writing and publishing a law review note. While I am all for encouraging students to write, submit, and publish papers, I think that Burns's advice, while well-intentioned, contains some mistaken suggestions that could hinder a paper's chances of publication.

Burns advises that students not devote significant time to bluebooking and editing the paper, urging students to throw their bluebooks and Chicago Manuals of Style "out the window." This may initially seem like good advice from the perspective of somebody who has been through the publication process. After several rounds of receiving, reviewing, and returning edits, it seems that any problems with the paper can be fixed after submission, meaning polishing the initial draft is a poor use of time.

While there will indeed be an editing process that will improve the quality of the paper both above and below the line, articles editors will probably not be enthusiastic about a paper unless they enjoy reading the paper. Consistent stylistic and grammatical shortcomings make it very difficult to get through a paper, even if the subject matter is interesting. Even more significantly, editors may conclude that poor grammar, style, and even bluebooking are indicators for poor research. Earning the trust of editors is crucial, and losing that trust to something as easy to remedy as poor editing shouldn't happen.

Burns has some other good pointers, but some of them should be qualified.

Burns recommends that students "Focus on First Impressions," emphasizing the importance of a catchy title and strong footnote describing the author's background and credentials. These are both important parts of a first impression, since they will probably be two of the first things that an author reads. But it is also crucial that students write an effective abstract in addition to the title and author footnote. The abstract should convey the argument of the paper in a concise and engaging manner.

And even if students take Burns's advice about giving short shrift to editing the paper, students should at least edit the abstract (and the introduction) multiple times. Back when I was an articles editor I read an interesting article, but my first impression of the article was ruined by several glaring errors in the abstract and by a misspelling of the author's school in the author footnote. Interestingly, the rest of the article was far more polished, leading me to conclude that the abstract and author footnote were hasty, final additions to the paper. But, as the first things I read, they ended up tarnishing my entire impression of the piece.

Burns also urges that students "Focus on Research," by including thorough citations to credible sources. This is indeed good advice, but as Burns emphasizes in one of his earlier posts, students should make sure that the background research portions of their papers do not take up too much of the paper. One easy tactic an articles editor can employ in deciding whether to publish a paper is to look at the ratio between the number of pages devoted to the background and research survey and the number of pages devoted to the paper's argument. If the paper is mostly background, with an argument relegated to the final two or three pages, most editors won't have second thoughts about rejecting the paper. Burns recommends that 30 percent of the paper be devoted to a research review, and that sounds appropriate to me.

I agree with Burns that students should seriously consider writing notes for publication. And I agree with much of Burns's advice in his three posts on student notes. But students must not underestimate the importance of polished writing and presentation. For more advice on publishing, see Orin Kerr's post here. And for an exhaustive set of steps that students should follow when writing and publishing papers, I recommend Eugene Volokh's excellent book, Academic Legal Writing.

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