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Law 792-AAA: Children's Health, Violence, and the Law: Writing Resources

Attribution & Avoiding Plagiarism

  1. Read everything you cite. 
  2. When in doubt, provide a footnote for any language, facts, or ideas you've borrowed from. 
  3. Use introductory sentences or parentheticals to provide context for sources.
  4. Use quotation marks whenever the language is distinctive, and provide a footnote for attribution.

Grammar/Usage Tips:

Passive Voice & Squishy Statements:

  • "Children tend to be adopted at lower rates when they've been in and out of multiple foster homes."
  • "Children are harmed by violent video games and tv."

Notice how both of those sentences contain a fair amount of ambiguity? They're a little squishy; we can't be sure exactly what the writer is trying to convey. Try to spot these and other ambiguous statements in your writing. Aim for greater precision, even if you can't rewrite it with active voice. Passive voice often masks the problem, rather than being the problem itself. 

  • "Statistics on foster care and adoption show that children who have had two or more foster placements are X% less likely to be adopted than children with fewer than two."   
  • Studies show that viewing violent video games has a negative effect on children under the age of 13."

Editing Notes

Some tips for interpreting notes on your drafts:

  • Treat all comments as global -- capitalization, footnote formatting, density of footnotes, etc. If I've marked it once, check all occurrences.
  • Triple-underlines mean capitalize; double-underlines I use to indicate lower case.
  • A line with a little curlicue tail means remove (usually a letter or two); a small narrow circle means close up a space. 
  • FN means move the reference to footnotes; if there's no source in your text, it also means provide a reference to support the assertion.
  • First Name first means switch the order of the author's first & last name.
    • Be sure to check Bluebook format before handing in your draft to Professor Wilson. Common errors include copy/paste of citation data from non-law databases (many use the author's last name first), failing to include the journal name, and incomplete cites of NGO reports. If the cites aren't in Bluebook form, it's not clear what some of these materials are. 
  • If you would like comments on the structure, ask again when you have a complete draft (assuming this draft isn't complete). I'm happy to re-read once you've finished getting your thoughts down on the page. 
  • If you can't read something I've written, don't be shy about asking (email is fine). I keep a copy of your paper with comments, so I'll have it to refer to. Just note the page and paragraph or line where the comment appears.

Draft Stage Tips

Drafting:

  • Have you worked through all your arguments, set out all your analysis of your solution, and written your conclusion? If not, do that first.
  • Once you've drafted through to the end at least once, edit/rewrite your introduction. Check to be sure you've set enough context, stated your thesis clearly, and provided a roadmap for your arguments.
  • Check your background section to be sure you provide enough to set up your analysis, but take care not to make it the centerpiece of your paper. Edit with a heavy hand here.
  • Check throughout for complete citations:
    • Look at all "FN" or "Source?" notes on your draft, and think about how you'll fill those in. Most likely, you'll need some new sources.
    • If you've used the same source for a long stretch of the article (more than two paragraphs, or more than 3 "Id"s in a row), challenge yourself to rewrite or to find at least one more good source to support what you're saying. Lots of "Id"s in a row suggests that you're making notes on the source, rather than writing.
    • With a seminar paper, you want to research (learn) enough to be able to write authoritatively. Use the research to learn from the best -- credible, authoritative, reliable, (usually scholarly) publications.
      • What makes a good source? Thoughtful, serious, vetted work. You don't want to cite something in your paper that hasn't been through some kind of rigorous process. 
      • Does the author have some authority in the field? What are the author's qualifications/credentials?
      • Are there any indicators of the author's bias? Is the author taking a personal stand, or is he or she being objective?
      • Does the publication provide references to credible, authoritative, reliable sources?
      • What kind of publication is the source? Is it a popular magazine, or a scholarly journal? 
  • Bluebook. Talk to the librarians at the reference desk for questions about any type of citation that you're unsure about. 
    • Be sure to use short forms and Id. and Supra and See as appropriate (see Bluebook).
    • When doing your Supra notes, use Word's cross-references if you think the footnote number could possibly change later. (Insert > Cross-Reference > Footnotes).

Organizational Tips:

Introduction: set the context (why it's important, plus anything else the reader needs to know up-front), state your thesis, provide a roadmap to the rest of the paper. 

Background: Condense your notes and summarize the background necessary for understanding your analysis of the issue. Use headings to mark off your sections. 

Analyze the problem, explaining the advantages and disadvantages of the current situation. Then state your proposal, explaining why it would work, and critique alternatives.

Conclude with a summary of the problem and your proposal again, and why your proposal is best. 

 If your paper doesn't fit into this structure well, consider alternatives -- breaking up your thesis into sub-points, addressing each in turn.

Common Issues with Sources/Citations

Seminar Papers can be a strange breed of legal writing, requiring research but not the kind of case-crunching that you've probably become most accustomed to. The aim should be to do enough research so that you can write with authority on a topic. You have studied and learned, and the writing demonstrates what you've learned.

Your set of resources says a great deal about what you studied and learned. They should be the resources that you would refer your reader to, to learn more about the topic. While there's no magic number of resources or footnotes, and no hard line rule about which type of resource is best, here are some guidelines about the different types of materials you should cite to in your footnotes:

Newspaper Articles - use for citing investigations of facts, and/or to support the occurrence of an event. At the conclusion of a high-profile trial, newspaper reporting can be a good source for anything that occurred in the courtroom during arguments, or guaging public opinion on the verdict.

Reports from NGOs, Associations, etc. - use for best practices and/or for their in-depth study of a phenomenon that is not otherwise well-documented. If a watchdog group issues a report (or white paper) on the incidence of drunk driving among licensed foster parents, having requested and counted a large number of FOIA-ed court reports, that's something that you probably won't find through any other source. 

Law Review Articles - use for their analysis of prevailing law in a given topic, such as juveniles being transferred to adult court under the discretionary transfer provisions. What you gain from a law review article is usually synthesis of multiple sources, in addition to their arguments about how the law should be. 

Scholarly articles from the social and biological sciences - the scientific process requires experimentation and analysis of the results, and authors publish in order to share their findings and data with the rest of the scientific community. Use these articles when you want to find support for phenomena you believe to be connected. For instance, you may believe (or hypothesize) that children who have been exposed to violence at home are more likely to become violent at school. That's a hypothesis; someone has most likely studied this with actual children, documenting exposure to violence at home and documenting violence at school, coding for each, and then analyzing the results. The study (or studies) may demonstrate only correlation -- that those two phenemona tend to occur together; or they may demonstrate causation -- that violence at home leads to more violence at school. But the research methods in the sciences require rigorous research in order to claim causation. 

Blogs and other online-only pieces - use to show what an influential thinker thinks, or what an organization is reporting on, or in the case of an online-only report, see above. 

Take a look at your footnotes, and ask yourself whether those are the best sources to support the point you're making. 

Recommended Books

References

Suggestions on this page drawn primarily from:

Eugene Volokh, Academic Legal Writing: Law Review Articles, Student Notes, Seminar Papers, and Getting on Law Review, 4th ed. (Foundation Press, 2010).

Elizabeth Fajans and Mary R. Falk, Scholarly Writing for Law Students: Seminar Papers, Law Review Notes, and Law Review Competition Papers, 4th ed. (West, 2011).