Introductory Comments

The most important skill you can develop as an undergraduate or law student is your writing.

Your writing needs to be clear and persuasive.

You should tailor your writing to your audience.  If you are taking one of my seminars or performing research for me, your primary audience is me.   I have set out below what helps and hinders clarity and persuasiveness with me—I’ve compiled most of these guidelines based upon student papers that I’ve graded in past years.  Some of you may disagree with my rules and preferences.   But keep in mind that the effectiveness of your advocacy must account for the nature of your audience—as idiosyncratic or uninformed as he, she, or they may be.


The Rules

1.  Formatting

  • One-inch margins

  • 12 point Times New Roman font

  • Footnotes, not endnotes

  • Use smart quotes

  • Place punctuation inside of quotation marks

  • Text double-spaced, footnotes single-spaced

  • Quotes of more than 50 words should be single-spaced indented block quotes

  • For seminar papers, shorthand references are fine (e.g., “Blasi, p. 185”)

  • Include page numbers

2. Clarity and style: things to avoid most of the time

  • Cumbersome words (e.g., “utilize,” “operationalize,” “heretofore”)

  • Emphasis adverbs (e.g., “really,” “truly,” “totally,” “completely”)

  • Absolutes (e.g., “always,” “never”)

  • The dangling “this” that lacks an object (e.g., “this is wrong” vs. “this objective is wrong”).

  • Lazy transitions (e.g., “next,” “further,” “also”)

  • Split infinitives

3.  My pet peeves: things to avoid all of the time

  • confusing possessive pronouns and contractions (e.g., “its” vs. “it’s”)

  • forgetting possessive apostrophes, especially on nouns ending in “s” (e.g., “Holmes’s view” or “Holmes’ view, not “Holmes view”)

  • Failing to proofread (misspellings, typos)

  • Using made up words (“alot,” “theirselves,” “irregardless”)

  • Ending sentences with a preposition

4. Common flubs

  • “affect” and “effect”

  • “then” and “than”

  • “further” and “farther”

  • “good” (adjective) and “well” (adverb)

  • “to” and “too”

5.  Writing techniques

  • Don’t make your claim bigger than it needs to be: frame the most modest version of the argument that will accomplish your goals

  • On the other hand, don’t undersell your own claim

  • Use fewer words when you can

  • Use the active voice when possible

  • The word “interesting” is often a giveaway that you haven’t thought very carefully about your claim or your sentence

6.  Writing for a supervisor (including a professor for whom you are conducting research)

  • Include your name and date on all documents that you compose (they are often separated from transmittal emails)

  • Include a brief introduction situating the assignment (e.g., “You had asked me to assess . . .”)

  • Keep your supervisor updated on your progress and notify him or her of any unexpected delays

  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions along the way (but your first question should be whether your supervisor has any preferences about the frequency, timing, and scope of questions from you)

  • Fight for feedback: ask if you are not sure whether you are doing something correctly

7.  Additional Resources

  • David Foster Wallace, “Tense Present” (a thoughtful and witty consideration of writing with some surprising connections to the practice of legal interpretation)