Thursday, May 19, 2005

Too much "background" in scholarly writing.

I read a lot of scholarly writing on the subject of legal writing. A lot. Like a dozen law-review articles a month, and sometimes more.

I'm tired of the extensive background given in some of these articles. Two questions:
  1. Can't we assume some knowledge of the field by the likely readers of the article?
  2. If we must give background, can't we keep it brief?
Sometimes, the background is longer than the analysis. I don't like that, and I'm not alone. Here's what Eugene Volokh says about it in his excellent book, Academic Legal Writing:
    The purpose of your article is to state and prove your claim. That's where the action is, and you should be excited and impatient about getting there.

    Before you get there, you'll probably have to describe some relevant background matters. If you want to write about why certain kinds of zoning laws violate the Takings Clause, you'll have to describe these laws briefly . . . .

    The key words here, though, are "briefly" and "background." Too many student articles spend eighty percent of their time summarizing the law and twenty percent explaining and proving their claims. Doing this is tempting: Summarizing the law is the easier task . . . .

    You can't prove your claim without explaining the background facts and doctrine, but do this as tersely as possible.

    All you do in this section is give the reader the legal and factual framework necessary to generally understand what follows.
Eugene Volokh, Academic Legal Writing: Law Review Articles, Student Notes, Seminar Papers, and Getting on Law Review 36 (2d ed., Found. Press 2005).

Let's do better.

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