A Tip on Writing Better Articles.

There’s tons of advice out there on how to get better placements for your academic writing.  Much of that genre holds writing quality constant or assumes it away.  But that’s silly.  Pat Rothfuss, one of my favorite fantasy authors and a former interviewee here at CoOp, has written a terrific column on how to avoid a mistake that bedevils first-time fantastists and junior scholars alike: excessive and ponderous vomiting of everything the author learned while preparing to write.  His diagnosis of the problem is lucid, and for fans of the genre, familiar:

“So here’s how it goes wrong.

1. You create something for your fantasy world: a creature, a culture, a myth, whatever.

2. You’re proud of your creation. You’re excited about it. You love it with a fierce love.

3. You need to describe this thing to your reader, because if they don’t understand how it works, your story won’t make sense.

(3b. Remember, the story is the real reason people are there. Story is everything. Story is god.)

4. So you start to explain how folks in the the Shire celebrate their birthdays. (This is important because one of the first major events of the book is a birthday party.) You talk about how hobbits give presents away at their parties instead of receiving them. (This is important because it ties into why Bilbo is going to hand over the ring to Frodo.)

Then you start talking about how some of these presents get passed back and forth, party after party. And how those items are actually called mathoms, and how there’s actually a museum full of mathoms at Michel Delving, which is in the Westfarthing of the shire, since, as you know, the Shire is composed of four sections which take their names from prominent families in the area, such as Tookland being named after the Tooks, who are among the largest and oldest of the Shire families, and in fact still held the title of Thain, which had been passed to them from the Oldbucks, and while the title was largely ceremonial these days due to the lack of Shire-moot in recent, peaceful times…. …

You see what happens? It’s easy for an author to get so caught up in the details of the world they created, that they go off the rails and give us more than is really necessary for the story.”

How many articles have you seen where an author provides multiple footnotes in each sentence of the introduction, each larding on another fact that the reader is compelled to digest?  Or first sections of articles that, in elaborate detail, tell you what the existing literature says.  Such articles are exhausting to even skim – it can be fifteen to twenty thousand words before we start to get a hint of the author’s unique contribution. We get it – you did your homework!

Follow the link to read Pat’s advice on how to avoid the problem.

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4 Responses

  1. Deven Desai says:


    Great points. I have some questions, however. Given the law review culture that seems to favor the approach you correctly criticize, how does one get away from this model while still passing the law student reader test? Maybe I am wrong, but there seems to be a screen for format and footnotes when one submits.

    In addition, it seems to me that the literature review problem stems, in part, from the nature of legal scholars. Stepping into new literature and presenting to audiences that have no clue about it might require the section that walks through the new area so that it can be applied later in the article. I also wonder whether the law brief roots of legal academic writing leads to an obsession to “prove” you did your homewrok as you say. Ironically, one could cite like mad and still be incorrect about the application.

    That being said, I agree with you and have wondered about this problem. Perhaps that is why I am asking for more here. I looked at the cautionary note from the post and maybe that is all we can do here too. Hmm. I wonder whether a few samples of articles that integrate non-legal material and meet some of your points would help? Reading good writing is usually a way to improve one’s writing. As I recall, I read Stephen Carter’s the Trouble with Trademarks in law school and one thing popped out. It was short, made a clear argument, and was quite a good read. I don’t think it dew on non-legal literature however.

    Ok now I have gone into too much detail. Curses! But thanks again for the post.

  2. Basil says:

    Its easy to criticize from inside the iron tower. But anyone seeking their first few placements or not yet granted a key to the iron tower should probably ignore this privileged rant. Most law review editors just aren’t going to bother on an article by a non-professor or new professor that lacks a critical mass of footnotes. We all know the reasons for this.

    Once, of course you get a track record and a nice letterhead you no longer have to worry about gaming the process with “multiple footnotes,” because now law review editors can just see where you teach and not bother to actually read the article. Unless you’re Mark Tushnet apparently. As we know from his recent awkward navel-gazing, over on Balkininization, he doesn’t understand why his failure to do what you criticize here didn’t get him a “good” placement.

    Dave, come on, you know why articles are written this way and you know why its unique to legal academic writing. Cloaking the discussion in fantasy doesn’t add anything to solving the underlying problem.

  3. Dave Hoffman says:


    I’m not naive, but I disagree with you nonetheless. True: junior scholars lard on the facts and the footnotes because they believe that law review editors use prolix writing as a proxy for quality. But there is no actual evidence that editors indeed behave in that way, and I think the simpler and cleaner hypothesis is that junior scholars write badly because they don’t have enough experience to write better. There is surely a range of good outcomes between between writing with no footnotes and writing so festooned with notes that it hits the reader with a thud.
    Why would you think that this problem is unique to legal writing? I think Gould has a paper on how junior scientists are more likely to write in the passive voice. Same problem, different expression.

  4. Dave Hoffman says:


    Also, I think the genre-appropriate insult would be “inside the Dark Tower.”