Being in graduate school means you should be getting used to a lot of writing. Where your biggest writing project in your undergrad was probably your final project, you’re looking to be writing enough for a final project once a month. And then of course there is the behemoth thesis you’ll be publishing at the end of your tenure. Making sure your writing is solid is important for all times in your graduate career. Below are some pointers for great writing from a law school student.
Organization is one of the most crucial aspects of any good paper or report. It is also usually the hardest aspect to get right. This is for a multitude of reasons and therefore requires a lot of attention.
Organization by Evaluator
Sometimes, your target audience differs over time and the people in charge of your grade change. What often happens is that the new evaluator and/or audience prefer different modes of organization for papers. Knowing your audience is crucial for your paper’s organization.
Organization by Paper Type
While your grader’s preference for your paper’s structure is important, equally important is the organizational structure that is usually taken for the topic. In the legal system, memoranda are exchanged between lawyers and their law clerks, between co-counsel on a case, between the lawyers and the judge, etc. The structure of the memoranda changes based on the kind of memoranda you’re trying to write.
A law clerk writing a memorandum to a lawyer containing research on a topic is more likely to leave out some of the topics of the case that aren’t relevant. A memorandum from a lawyer to the judge is more likely to lay out all of the facts of the case so the judge can get oriented. If you aren’t sure about the preferences for your paper’s audience, falling back on the typical structure for the paper type is always a good idea.
Important Organizational Points
One of the best things to do organizationally when starting your paper is writing the main point, or the paper’s conclusion, as soon as possible. When in graduate school, it is best to show your professor the point of the whole paper or report as soon as possible. Nobody likes having to search for the conclusions of an experiment or project.
You should also make your paper easy to read. Make each section as clear and concise as possible. Avoid using more sentences than necessary. If your professor has to tread through ornamental language that adds nothing substantial to the paper in order to get to the main points, they’re going to get annoyed.
If you find yourself struggling to write good, strong sentences, don’t be too worried about it. The first time through a paper or your thesis, just focus on getting ideas on the page. Even if you read over it later and you feel like a paragraph is completely unusable, at least the ideas are already there.
Getting whatever comes to mind written down comes with a lot of benefits. Firstly, the written ideas can serve as notes, so you don’t forget what ideas came to mind. These notes also serve as a prototype. It lets you see how the ideas would fit into the paper. If you ultimately feel like one topic doesn’t fit in towards the end of the writing process, you can always delete the paragraph from your paper.
Having a lot written down also serves as a good motivator. Instead of taking time for your paper and seeing only one page written, you can be greeted by a five page paper that really only needs editing. When you feel like you’ve already done a lot of the work, you can feel more motivated to finish up the paper.
Unless the paper is serving only as a reference guide for personal use, papers should always be heavily edited. You should expect to edit your paper at lest two to three times. Such heavy amounts of editing is needed for multiple reasons. Firstly, if you have had a lot of time to work on your paper or report and started early, the beginning of your paper might end up looking drastically different from the later parts of your paper. Your conclusion or process might have changed from when you began writing and your first musings might be missing out on the changes. (Check out r3ciprocity.com if you need editing help on a paper.)
Also, we as people are not perfect. You will surely have made at least some grammatical mistakes or spelling errors your first time through the report. Along this line, the very first thoughts on a topic are rarely as refined as they should be. While there might have been a few sentences in there that were strokes of genius, it’s more likely that a lot of the sentences aren’t very good and need to be edited.
Editing is also just a safety net for you. Just like with writing emails, the golden rule is that it never hurts to check again. Even if your paper is as close to perfection as you can make it, reading it over one more time will just confirm that conclusion if it’s true.
The definition of easy reading for a paper typically changes based on your paper’s audience. Someone writing a scientific research paper is probably going to leave out definitions of some commonly understood terms in the science community, while a law student might leave some complicated terms of law unexplained.
While this is tempting, the very nature of graduate school would encourage authors not to do so. As a grad student, you are quite likely to try to publish your paper or any of your writings. When you are doing so, it is best to make your paper easy to read and understand. It is best to write your paper as if you are addressing a classroom full of average adults.
Addressing your paper to a seeming completely unaware adult in the field will also help you focus on including the little details in your paper. Most people probably have not read all of the reference material you read to write your paper. They also weren’t there for any of your experiences. When you think of writing for a completely unrelated audience, you’re more likely to include details you had initially taken for granted but might not have been known by your audience.
The words you choose to write your paper is almost more important than obtaining all the necessary and correct information for the paper. Graduate students tend to make one of two mistakes when exercising word choice in their papers: writing too formally and writing too casually.
Writing Too Formally
As aspiring academics, graduate students have a tendency to want to prove their academic prowess through their writing. This quite often manifests itself in the use of big words in their paper, overloading the paper with data, and writing their points in more of a vague way so it appears more like a great piece of literature.
In reality, just writing a paper for publication is evidence of your academic abilities. Even in the academic community, using a lot of big words makes the paper less enjoyable to read while too much data can make the point of the paper harder to detect. Writing in a professional tone consists of writing in clear, usually concise sentences with just enough data to clearly outline your paper’s purpose.
Writing Too Casually
While you don’t want to appear overly formal in your paper, you also don’t want to seem too casual. This is still a piece of academic literature that, if written well, could end up being published. You’ll want to avoid common terms of slang and an overly casual tone, such a trying to be overly friendly with the audience through your writing.
Avoiding casualness also means avoiding references you used while doing research for the paper. While a test subject might have had a nickname throughout the experiment, you’ll want to avoid using the name in your actual paper along with any abbreviations that aren’t standard, such as abbreviations for organizations.
Writing papers, whether just for class or more for publication purposes, all have one universal requirement: you really need to read the instructions. This requirement can feel harder to do or less necessary the longer you are in a class or working with a certain professor or lab. As you get used to the typical format for papers, reading the instructions starts feeling like a waste of time.
However, even long time professors need to read the instructions for submitting entries for journals if they are seeking publication. Even if you’ve written multiple papers of this type, updates to formatting happen not infrequently. Even so, it’s always better just to make sure you’re writing your paper in the required format before writing instead of finishing it and then learning it was written wrong.
As a graduate student, you will most likely be spending a large amount of time either researching or learning how your professor wants you to be doing research. This is true for law school as well. The research and references you showcase in your paper is just as important as the thesis statement and the point you are trying to prove.
This means you need to have done your research as thoroughly as possible. If you’re in a field where you’re performing experiments, this includes accurate and thorough recording of your experimental findings. If you aren’t personally performing experiments, this requires an accurate and detailed description of where your researched data came from and how the reader can find that data for themselves.
While coming providing your own analysis of events in your paper is important, never forget to clearly outline where your research came from and how readers can find that data.
Be Careful with Plagiarism
While you want to perform good research and use the best sources you can in your paper, it is also equally important to avoid plagiarizing any of your paper’s sources. A plagiarism claim against your paper can be industry ending, depending on how severe the claim is. Any appearance of plagiarism can cause distrust and also doubt in your ability as an academic.
A lot of plagiarism cases happen accidentally, so just make sure you give credit to other sources whenever you use direct language or overall concepts unique to that source. Also avoid copying large amounts of texts from the same source. A good way to avoid such a situation is to try to diversify the sources for an overall concept.
For example, if your research has to do with the Krebs Cycle and there are multiple sources discussing the cycle’s function, use multiple sources to describe the function instead of just using one source to discuss the whole function.
Make Use of Graduate School
Remember, you are currently a graduate student. This means you are still a student, so you’re still learning. By default, any professors you might be working with are supposed to be your teachers. One important job of teachers is to teach students, usually through the use of feedback. This means you should feel confident in walking up to your professor and asking them for feedback on your writing.
Feedback can be given both before a paper’s due date as well as afterwards. For papers you’re looking to publish, you’ll want to work often with your professor/s to make sure you are going in the right direction with your writing. Even if your paper is not for publication, you should feel comfortable with going to your professor and asking them for feedback on your paper.
If you get feedback from grading that you don’t understand, don’t feel nervous or embarrassed to go ask your professor why they gave you a certain grade or what exactly they meant by a certain comment. If you come out of graduate school and don’t feel like you are capable of writing a publication worthy paper, you didn’t make as good of use of your professors as you could have.
Write Early, Write Often
You will most likely be writing a lot of papers in graduate school. The type of papers you will be writing are quite likely to be fairly different from the type of writing you did before. The best way to get up to speed with the changes in writing styles and organization is to write as many papers as possible. Practicing over and over is the key to paper writing success.
Practicing your writing can be done in a number of different ways. You can try to take classes with heavy writing elements so you have more material you can practice with. You can also take it upon yourself in your research group to write more reports and papers about the research. Doing so will give you the opportunity to practice as well as show your research head that you are serious about the research.
You can also always take it upon yourself to practice writing papers on various topics. Doing so with self-imposed deadlines and expectations can be a little difficult, but it can also help you prepare for after graduation, where you will someday be in charge of deciding to publish papers or not. Also, many professors would be willing to read over other papers you have written and give you feedback, so doing so would be taking complete advantage of your position as a graduate student.
As a first year graduate student, you’re likely to have no experience with writing graduate-level papers. Being in such a situation, it’s always a good idea to look at examples of papers in your field and of the same organizational method to help you prepare to write your own paper.
Many professors will share examples of papers they find to be well written. If such a paper is available, study the formatting, writing style, and organization of the paper and use it as a sort of template. The longer you are in grad school, the more you will diverge from the template as your own personality comes through and you get more comfortable with writing. However, if you find yourself writing graduate level papers for the first time, sticking to such a template is perfectly acceptable.
Your paper will most likely have guidelines you have to follow but remember that you got into grad school because you are you, not any other researcher or writer. That means your institution believes that you are capable of writing and producing great papers.
Believe in yourself and your abilities. Don’t worry too much about whether your paper is good or not. Confidence in yourself will come through in your writing and the way you write. As long as you read the instructions and put forth your best effort, you’re sure to write a great paper or report that you can be proud of.
This post was written by grad student in law school on behalf of Dave Maslach for the R3ciprocity project (Check out the YouTube Channel or the writing feedback software). R3ciprocity helps students, faculty, and research folk by providing a real and authentic look into doing research. It provides solutions and hope to researchers around the world.
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