How do I write?

November 23rd, 2009

At PrawfsBlawg, Professor Horwitz has an interesting post on his writing approach.

For most major projects, I (or a combination of my research assistant and I) transcribe all the little quotes, sections, and arguments, along with my occasional marginalia, from the articles and books I’m reading into a single document, with cites and page references noted, so that once I’m writing, instead of combing through all the work I’ve read I can refer to a relatively discrete document.  (Although my “source notes” document can run to 80 or 90 single-spaced pages.)  For the most part, I don’t commit words to paper until I’ve gone through this process; I’m not one of those who can start writing with “fill in later” or “cite tk” peppered through the draft.  My first drafts thus take quite a while to come together, and the process often fills me with a certain sense of nausea or of approaching an unclimbable hill, but they also tend to be fairly polished and in far less need of multiple drafts.  There are second and third drafts, to be sure, but the first one is often quite close to the final result.  Typically, for a longer project, I’ll also do a fairly full outline for each section or chapter.  Although I still often have to work my through the argument(s) in each section, I have a fairly strong sense by that time of what will go where and how the course of the argument will proceed.  Although I can go for weeks without writing (and in a mire of self-loathing and borderline panic), once I start a lot can get written at a time.

People often ask me how I have been able to write so much, so quickly. My writing process is totally holistic in the sense that I am always preparing.  I am always looking around, thinking, and considering new areas of the law that need discussion. Every article I read, every lecture I attend, every discussion I have, all factor into my writing calculus.

On my blackberry, I keep track of notes of possible paper topics. Whenever I see or hear or read something, I add that thought to the note. Recently, I started shifting some of this work to my blog.  I have been keeping some of these notes for years. At this point, I have over a hundred notes, and am always adding more.

When a note gets enough thoughts that it starts to look promising for a paper, I start my research. First, I look through the note, and add those thoughts to a word document. I take those thoughts, and start to arrange a rough, rough outline of the topics I want to discuss.

Next, in perhaps a backwards step, I start with the footnotes. I go through books, law review articles, and cases, and copy direct quotes into the appropriate outline section. By doing this, I only need to check my original sources once at the beginning. Ultimately I delete or paraphrase most of the quotes, but putting the quotes in there makes bluebooking simple, and minimizes my need to return to the Library. Soon, my draft article has a pretty robust outline with lots of footnotes.  Next, I just write sentences around the footnotes. During this stage, I invariably shift my outline around a lot, work on revising the thesis, and start to work in some creative elements. This accomplishes most of the Fact/Background section.

The analysis section comes next. This is the toughest part. I need to really get into the facts, think about what I want to say, and get into the zone. I usually slouch in a chair, and just start typing a stream of consciousness. A lot of it is pap. Some of it is good. But by putting words on the page, I develop a semblance of a thesis. I refine, revise, think about it some more, take a break, and refine some more. Eventually, it starts to make sense. Then I work in some of the footnotes, and eventually, the article writes.

Once I am satisfied the analysis makes sense, I write the Introduction. Trying to summarize the thesis into a few pages forces me to be concise, and pick out any logical inconsistencies in the thesis. Invariably, after writing the introduction, I revise the analysis section a bit.

Once I am satisfied with the Introduction and the Analysis section, I write the Conclusion. If I can’t summarize my thesis into a few paragraphs, the thesis is not tight enough. Once the conclusion is done, I move onto the proof-reading process, and start thinking about publication.

I’m curious how others write. Thoughts?