Thursday, August 02, 2007

Academic writing by legal-writing teachers

I have said that "I am often disappointed in the quality of writing published by legal-writing teachers." A commenter asked me to elaborate. To be clear, I am talking about academic legal writing in law reviews, not about short, practice-oriented pieces. I'll start with the problems I see in traditional academic legal writing:

Excessive nominalizations
Excessive passive voice
Long sentences
Excessive abstraction
Lack of a natural-sounding voice
Sprinkling of grammar, punctuation, and word-usage mistakes
And in general, a lack of reader focus.

These problems are understandable for many reasons.

First, law professors haven't had any more training in professional writing than other lawyers and judges, so we shouldn't expect academic legal writing to be any better than typical legal writing.

Second, many law professors consider themselves highly intelligent, and they sometimes try to show off that high intelligence with a stuffy, intellectual-sounding writing style.

Third, many law review articles are written only to earn tenure or accolades within legal academia; they need not appeal to a larger audience, so they need not be reader-focused. In fact, I cynically suggest that many law-review articles are read only by the hiring, promotion, and tenure committees at law schools. And they read them only because they have to. With no need to engage readers, writers produce mediocre writing.

Fourth, those who choose articles and prepare them for publication are students. Often they are extremely smart, but very few have the substantive knowledge to discern quality scholarship or the editorial knowledge to make the writing readable.

Fifth, because most law-review articles are stuffy and intellectual-sounding, writers assume that if they want to get published, they must sound stuffy and intellectual.

Now to my point: I have read many, many law-review articles written by legal-writing professors, and I think the majority are just as poorly written as law-review articles by other law professors. I think we should be able to do better. But we are probably influenced most heavily by my fifth cause above: to get published, we think we have to sound stuffy and intellectual--all the more because our status and tenure chances are low.

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