Writing a Paper

Professor Schnably

There are many different approaches to writing a paper. What follows no doubt reflects my own prejudices in certain respects. If you have considerable experience in writing (e.g., having written an extensive senior honors thesis in college, or a Ph.D. or Master’s thesis), you obviously need to consider what works best for your style.

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Please Note: Much of what follows is intended to apply no matter who your advisor is. Any thoughts that apply specifically to what I would expect or require as your advisor are marked with an SJS symbol.

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I. Topic Outline
II. Writing the First Draft
III. Writing the Final Draft

I. Topic Outline

Once I have agreed to be your advisor, you should write a 2-3 page outline of the paper topic.

The outline should be substantive and cite the most important statutes, cases, etc. in the area. It’s not enough, for example, to have the last part of the outline state “conclusion” or to include unexplained catchphrases like “alternative approaches.” The purpose is to force yourself to think about what you may be arguing. As you work on the paper throughout the semester, your ideas about both the organization and substance will likely change, but it’s very important to begin with a concrete notion of what the paper is about. It’s fine if you end up changing your mind about the conclusion, or addressing topics you hadn’t initially thought you’d cover, or not addressing topics you had originally planned to cover. What’s important is to go into your research with some sense of direction. Otherwise, a good deal of your initial research efforts may be wasted.

Occasionally I may ask someone to do this before I agree to be their advisor, to get a better sense of whether the topic is viable one.

II. Writing the First Draft

A. Research

1. Do additional research on your topic. Your aim should be to find every relevant case, statute, treaty, or regulation, as well as every relevant article and book. Do not overlook books that appear relevant simply because the law library or Richter does not have them; books can be requested by Inter-Library Loan. You should discuss with the Library’s excellent reference staff how to find books that are not in the Law Library’s or Richter’s catalogue.

Your research needs to be exhaustive to make sure that you are thoroughly familiar with the literature and have considered all the arguments that others have made in a related context. Note, by the way, that as you do the research, you may find yourself rethinking your initial position; it is possible that the draft you end up writing will be very different from what you originally envisioned.

2. A few specific notes about use of sources:

(a) The best way to find law review articles remains Lexis and Westlaw. Use one or the other or both. In addition, you should check SSRN for articles that have not yet been published. Do not rely on google searches to find law review articles.

(b) For many other topics there is highly relevant information and analysis that you will find in published books, and only there. Don’t overlook this resource.

(c) By all means use the wealth of information and analysis available on the internet, but be discriminating:

(i) Never include a footnote that simply has a URL. You would never put in a cite just to the Library of Congress number of a book. Similarly, you need to give the author (which could be institutional) and title, even for something on the web, with a date, followed by “available at http:// ....”

(ii) Think about the provenance of the web-based source you’re citing, and make sure it is appropriate. For example, if it is from an respected advocacy group with a strong point of view, what is that point of view? How reliable is it? If you are citing a blog, what are you citing it for? Is it the blog of a respected expert in the area? Are there formal publications by that expert that would explore the topic more thoroughly? If you are citing the page for, say, statistics, how reliable is the information? If you are citing government statistics, you should generally use the official agency site for those statistics unless there’s a good reason to do otherwise.

3. Keep a research “journal.”  This is optional, but you may well find it helpful. In this journal, you should keep track of the following:

(a) Every computerized search you make, including what exactly the search was. (Often, people who have only recently learned to use Lexis or Westlaw use searches that are too narrowly or broadly defined; your faculty advisor can make suggestions for alternative searches that may turn up more useful material.)

(b) Every catalog search you make (e.g., BARON or Richter). Specify what subjects you looked under.

(c) Every book, article, statute, regulation, or case you read (just write down the case name, book title and author, article’s author, title, and cite, or statute or regulation’s cite).

An important reason for keeping a journal is to keep track of what sources you have examined. There may well be areas you need to revisit later in your research, and having a record of what you've already looked at will prevent duplication. Also, it will enable you to have more useful discussions with your faculty advisor about where you've looked.

SJS3. Meet with me on a regular schedule to go over your research journal with you. The purpose of doing this is for me to be able to give you maximum assistance in making sure that your research is thorough and comprehensive.

B. Halfway through the period allocated for your research for the first draft, consider writing a more detailed outline of your topic. The purpose of doing the outline is to force you to think about what areas are most important, what areas you need to research but haven’t yet looked into, and so on. This may not be helpful to everyone, so it’s your call.

C. Write a first draft by the day specified in your writing schedule. You will most likely feel that it is too early to be writing a draft, but the purpose of doing a first draft is just to pull your first research efforts together in some kind of comprehensible form. If you haven’t written an outline as suggested in II.B., it will very likely be helpful to do so before you write the first draft. If you have written the outline suggested in II.B., consider whether you need to re-think organization and coverage before you actually write the first draft.

Note that you should not try to get certain parts of the paper “out of the way” immediately, while entire other areas still remain largely unresearched. The result is likely to be an unbalanced paper. Do research on all major aspects of the argument in your paper before you begin to write the first draft.

Keep in mind the earlier advice about having a thesis. If you don’t have an argument to make, you’ll likely find that there’s no good way to organize the paper; if you do have a thesis, the structure of your argument will give you the most useful guidance in organizing it. The overall structure might be as simple as setting out the predominant approach to a certain problem; criticizing that approach; and then offering an alternative.

Aside from that, a few general remarks about organization may be useful. There is certainly no one formula for writing a paper, but most good papers will cover at least the following ground. You should set out your basic argument in an introduction, which should, at the end of the introduction, give the reader a “roadmap” of what the remaining sections will cover. (Usually, it’s helpful to hold off writing the introduction until near the end of writing the first draft.) You should also, fairly early on, give the reader whatever background is necessary to understand the issues. That may mean recounting a line of cases leading up to the present one you’re commenting on, or discussing previous arguments that have been made in the literature. If you’re going to be criticizing some approach that courts, legislatures, or other theorists have taken, you need in this section to acquaint the reader with that approach. More generally, one important aim of the paper should be to make the reader familiar with all the relevant literature and legal materials.

When you set out your own argument, keep in mind the need for a balance between two aims of the paper. On the one hand, your purpose is to persuade the reader of some proposition; your writing should aim to set out and elaborate the proposition in clear and straightforward writing (though without over-simplifying it). On the other hand, a paper is not the same kind of advocacy piece as a brief. You need to acknowledge and discuss criticisms of your argument that you find in the literature or cases or that could fairly be made of your position. Doing so will in fact lend your work more authority than simply ignoring counter-arguments or cases that seem inconsistent with your position ever could.

The citations in the first draft need not conform precisely to the Bluebook, but each cite should at the very least specifically identify the bibliographical information that someone would need to track down the exact page(s) you’re citing. For example, include the author and title of a book you’re citing, as well as the page number(s). An article cite should be sufficiently specific that someone could find the author and page number you’re citing. Cases, statutes, and regulations should be similarly identified. The final draft should have the citations in Bluebook form.

SJSAlthough I am not absolutely rigid on this point, the final draft for a two-credit paper should be approximately 40 pages, and your first draft will likely be about that length.

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SJSFinally, to ensure that your draft has a chance of having the depth of research required, it must include citations to at least 20 different, pertinent law review articles, books, or reports, as well as to an appropriate number of cases, statutes, or regulations. (Note that your draft may well have many more cites than the minimum.) The citations should be to specific pages of the articles or books. Avoid repetitive citations to a single source, unless there’s a very good reason for it.

III. Writing the Final Draft

A. Re-read your draft and your advisor's comments.

Decide what areas require additional research; what parts of the first draft need to be condensed, expanded, or deleted; what new areas need to be covered; and how the draft needs to be reorganized. Consider drawing up an outline of the new organization of the paper if you think extensive reorganization will be necessary.

B. If necessary, take your first draft to the Writing Center for advice on writing more effectively.

C. Do the additional necessary research.

1. Keep a research journal as indicated in II.A above.

SJS2. Meet with me periodically to go over it.

D. Write the final draft.

SJSWriting Schedule

This is an example of the kind of schedule that I expect you to develop at the outset of your writing, if I agree to serve as your advisor.


Paper Topic:                                                                        


Meeting 1:                                                                        

Meeting 2:                                                                        


First draft:                                                                        


Meeting 3:                                                                        

Meeting 4:                                                                        


Final draft:                                                                        

Back to: the Top
Advice on Choosing a Topic
Professor Schnably's Course Page
Professor Schnably's Home Page