Does Scholarly Writing Have to Be Tedious?
posted by Daniel Solove
Over at the new and very engaging blog, LawCulture, Rosa Brooks writes:
As a junior professor, I dutifully churned out law review articles to fill my tenure file. Some of those articles, I think, may even have contained a few good ideas and a few good lines, but all of them suffered, to one degree or another, from the contraints of the genre. Worse yet, I’m fairly sure that practically no one outside my tenure committee and my mother has actually read the damn things (and I have my doubts about my mom). Not that this makes me unusual: the vast majority of law review articles are read by few people, and cited by even fewer. So… what’s it all for?
Now, since I’m devoutly hoping my colleagues won’t actually revoke that tenure vote, I’m awfully tempted to echo Rodell and say goodbye to law reviews. From now on: books, absolutely. Magazine and newspaper articles? Sure. Blogs? We’re trying. Even, perhaps, the occasional law review symposium piece or essay, since those are fairly harmless. But as for those ponderous, still-much-too-long, ludicrously over-footnoted things we call Articles, with that portentously capitalized “A”? No, no, no.
No more going through perfectly good prose and inserting pointless qualifiers and parentheticals; no more searching for vaguely on point articles and cases to fill out footnotes; no more going through the ludicrous and humiliation rituals of submitting pieces to law reviews then playing the expedited review/trading up game.
Over at PrawfsBlawg, Paul Horwitz responds by observing:
There are all kinds of reasons one might prefer a “conversation” with a general audience, or an audience of politicians and opinion-makers, or an audience of non-academic lawyers, or an intellectual but non-academic and generalist audience, and so on. I do get the sense that it is possible for legal academics who opt to write largely or strictly in other fora to drop off the face of the earth as legal academics, but that’s not the same thing as saying that they have actually dropped off the face of the earth; to the contrary, from their perspective they may have entered a newer and larger world. But it is a different world, and the question is, how much enthusiasm do some of these dropouts from the tedious world of academe have for those aspects of the old one?
Ethan Leib at PrawfsBlawg has further thoughts.
The debate thus far raises at least two intertwined issues. First is the issue of whether and to what extent legal scholars should strive to be public intellectuals, and to what degree it is possible to be a public intellectual and a good scholar at the same time. I will save this question for a later post, as it is an important issue worthy of significant attention.
The other issue is whether scholarship — law review articles in particular — must be dense, overly crammed with footnotes, and dull. From what I’ve read in the discussions I quoted above, there’s an assumption that law review articles have a particular nature — a particular format and style. It is certainly true that law review articles have evolved into a certain kind of genre, typified by great verbosity, laborious and obtuse prose, and zillions of footnotes. But need law review articles be that way?
Part of the reason for this state of affairs is that we professors haven’t pushed enough to modify the genre. The law students seem to be the ones dictating the terms — indeed, recently, several top journals instituted a page limit on articles. We professors dutifully try to obey. But perhaps it’s time for us to pipe up. Let’s call for abolishing some of the stupid rules in the Bluebook (for non-lawyers, this is the law review manual of citation) that mandate the litany of unnecessary footnotes. In short, we’re Bluebook takers when we should be Bluebook makers . . . or I should say Bluebook shapers since we’d much rather advise on the creation of the Bluebook than actually write the Bluebook ourselves.
Moreover, we need not write articles densely and obtusely. I view style and clarity as part of the craft of writing law review articles. I try (although certainly don’t always succeed) in writing articles with lively and accessible prose. Law review articles can be more than just a plodding through an issue; we can attempt to craft them more artistically, with attention to language and style. There is no reason why good scholarship cannot be eloquent.
Most ideas can be stated clearly and in an accessible manner. I often find that a lot of academic scholarship, when boiled down to its ideas, is relatively straightforward and simple. Of course, we academics like to dress up our ideas to make them sound more elaborate, complex, and obtuse. But in the end, most ideas are simple. Often, however, our prose doesn’t invite people into our ideas but shuts them out. Perhaps we fear that if our articles didn’t take a lot of effort to plod through they wouldn’t seem as profound. If more people could understand them, then perhaps we’re not sophisticated enough as scholars. If we wrote in a lively and clear manner, then too many people might understand our ideas, and we might risk the perception that our ideas were too obvious and simple. But these fears are mostly wrong, in my view. Big important ideas are often not very complex. They may be subtle and nuanced, but that doesn’t mean that they are complicated or that they must be expressed in a dense and obtuse manner.
So perhaps we shouldn’t just discard the law review article genre, but should seek to change it. The law review article does have some benefits. Law review articles are easy to research for lawyers and legal academics, since they are available on online research databases such as Westlaw and Lexis (something I wish the articles of all fields were available on). Many law professors now put their law review articles on SSRN, making them available for free to people around the world. Despite some obstinate outliers and some obnoxious bargaining that sometimes must take place, most law reviews will give authors copyright in their work — something other print media such as book publishers often do not do. Moreover, law reviews have the practice of allowing authors to order hundreds of reprints to send out to people — many journals in other fields don’t have such a practice. In short, the law review article provides authors with a significant ability to disseminate their scholarship. Now, all we as scholars have to do is produce the kind of work that more people want to read. It is my belief (and hope) that there are many people out there who care about ideas and intellectual discourse and who would read legal scholarship if only we were better at the craft.