Student Writing

The Writing Process

Typical Outline of a Note

  • Introduction: The Introduction should include a description of the problem, a thesis statement, and a roadmap of the argument to follow.
  • Part I: This section should be used to set forth the background information on which the later analysis in your Note will depend. It should be a general and broad review of the important issues relevant to your topic that educates your readers about everything they must know in order to understand your Note. When writing this section, be sure to use language that a reader who is not familiar with your Note topic can easily understand.
  • Part II: This section should examine the major cases and statutes that your Note will be analyzing. It will contain the main portion of your analysis of how the law stands. For example, if your topic focuses on a circuit split, Part II is where you would explain the conflicting holdings and rationales. You may also choose to discuss what other commentators have said about your topic and these cases.
  • Part III: This section is where you will contribute your own analysis of and views on the topic. You will say why you feel the cases/commentary you analyzed are wrong and what should be done instead. In the case of a circuit split, say which side is better and why. Part III is where you should place your original thoughts and contributions, along with the conclusion of your Note.
  • Conclusion: The Conclusion should briefly restate what you have already said. You should not focus too much on this section when preparing this Prospectus.


Tips on Legal Writing—Patrick Garlinger ’09

While some may have a greater facility for language than others, there is nothing natural about good writing. It comes from practice—and from rewriting.

Advice on writing is easily dispensed but difficult to follow. This is largely because writing requires enormous discipline. The following are six basic principles that provide a structure for the writing process. They are not specific to academic writing or to legal writing in particular but may be especially helpful in a law school environment where time to write is a precious commodity. Over the years these guidelines have given me the discipline to start and finish, among other academic texts, a student Note.

Writing is like a muscle: Exercise it regularly.

For most students, the Note is the first experience with publishable academic writing. In college, all-nighters might produce passable term papers, but that approach certainly won’t do here. Nor will exam writing really prepare you for legal academic writing. Instead, good academic writing requires regular practice. Law school does little to assist here, since all too often the periods for working on one’s Note are isolated and scattered due to the time constraints imposed by classes, journal work, clinics, and extra-curricular activities. You may pursue a Directed Research as a way to carve out a block of time dedicated to the note or, alternately, write your note to fulfill the writing requirement of a seminar. Winter break is also a great time to make substantial progress on a first draft. Either way, you should try to work steadily on the Note so as to avoid losing momentum and focus.

Good writing does not come naturally: Read good writers.

While some may have a greater facility for language than others, there is nothing natural about good writing. It comes from practice—and from rewriting. To practice without models of good writing is, however, pointless. You must read other legal writers carefully, for both their analysis and their style. As a starting point, find a few sources that inspire your intellectual juices and, over time, keep adding to the list. Read and analyze how those writers introduce their topic and communicate their thesis. Look carefully at the architecture of their argument, their lexicon and sentence structure. In short, read them as both legal scholars and writers. Emulate (but do not copy, of course). Additionally, you may benefit from style guides that provide specific guidelines for legal writing (e.g., Bryan Garner’s Legal Writing in Plain English). Avoid legalese. A student note should not read like a law school exam or a brief.

Know your thesis: Say it in a single sentence.

One of the most difficult tasks facing a student writer is finding a topic and narrowing the thesis. The student Note is rather short—and because you need to provide background information for your generalist readers, there is little room for sweeping analysis. As such, you should target a very discrete issue. Yet, in my experience, articulating, not finding, the topic is the most difficult task facing a student writer.

You should be able to state your thesis in one or two sentences at most. Anything longer suggests that the topic too unwieldy for a student note or, more probably, that the writer still has not fully understood the nature of the project. Pith not protraction should be your goal. If you can state your thesis in a single sentence, that clarity and concision will guide you throughout the rest of the writing process, helping to avoid unfortunate meanderings or excess material that is not essential to the argument. Simply put, if you cannot summarize your note in one or two sentences, you don’t have a thesis.

Know your writing mode: Respect your rhythm.

Everyone has a writing mode—when you are most inclined to write and how you go about composing. Some of us are “whittlers.” We write and write and write. Later, we will edit and “whittle” away the excess. We refine our ideas in the process of writing, often repeating the same thoughts in multiple guises until we hit on just the right formulation. Others are “refiners” who write just a few sentences or a paragraph and then revise and polish it to perfection before moving on. Similarly, you may have a natural rhythm when it comes to the time of day when your writing seems to flow most easily. A friend of mine prefers to write in the mornings before she has any tea or coffee, using what I call the “carrot” method of motivation.

Respect your writing style; recognizing how you work is important to maximizing it. It may prove futile to try to write against your natural rhythm. If I try to refine as I write, or if I write in the middle of the afternoon, I find myself producing very little.

Everyone suffers from writer’s block: Switch gears or put it down and rest.

Even when you know your writing mode, writing can be a difficult process; your energy comes in fits and spurts, your love for your topic waxes and wanes. When you hit a road block, change it up. Sometimes very simple changes can give you a boost. When I find myself struggling, I switch fonts, or change the spacing from single to double. Often the effect is just to defamiliarize the text, so you see it differently. If writer’s block still persists and the words elude you, take a break. Sometimes a day or two can make a difference in how the argument reads to you—the logical leaps, grammatical errors or infelicitous word choices will leap off the page.

There is a danger, though, in always caving at the first resistance to writing. Writing is hard work. It requires endurance and persistence. Force yourself to try to write for at least 10-15 minutes. A mentor was fond of saying, “Screw your a-- to the chair and don’t get up.” Like exercise, sometimes the thought of writing is more painful than the actual practice, and once you start, you find it comes more easily than anticipated.

Never fall in love with your own writing: Edit with a vengeance.

This piece of advice is owed to a former mentor who repeated it as a mantra. Whether you are a whittler, a refiner, or somewhere in between, we often fall in love with our own prose, unable to let go of a snappy sentence or an ingenious turn of phrase. Editing is the key to good writing, however, and you cannot be afraid to leave material on the cutting room floor.

Place yourself in the reader’s position and ask yourself if the sentence/paragraph/section is really essential. Because we often think we know what our words mean, we fail to realize that our readers may not find our thoughts to be so crystalline. Defamiliarize your own writing by putting the text away or it may be helpful to print out and proofread in hard copy; words will look different on the page than on the computer screen. Finally, avoid the fetish of the footnote as the last refuge for material that should be cut. It is cliché but true that less is often more.


Additional Resources

  • Writing Workshop Video: A September 2008 presentation by Vice Dean Barry Friedman, Professor Florencia Marotta-Wurgler, Patrick Garlinger, ’09, and Ilana Harmati, ’10, on student legal writing.
  • Eugene Volokh, Academic Legal Writing: Law Review Articles, Student Notes, and Seminar Papers (2003)
  • The Bluebook: the guide to legal citation to use in writing and editing legal scholarship.