Planning memos/other writings

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MinEMorris
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Planning memos/other writings

Postby MinEMorris » Tue Feb 12, 2013 1:46 pm

The onenote thread convinced me that this forum is full of organization rockstars. I'd appreciate any input that any of you have.

I've gone my whole life failing to plan writings. I always just organized my writing in my head or as I went along in the process of writing. I've gotten by with this approach, but I'm starting to think that I would really benefit from spending time carefully planning my writing before I start.

While I've found some resources recommending outlining and giving some general guidelines (e.g. write out all of your main headings and subheadings) I wanted to reach out to you all and see what techniques any of you actually employ to plan a writing. I'm also quite curious at what stages you do your planning, and how your planning evolves as you do more research. Say you get a research topic that you know zilch about and you have to write a memo on it. Do you, for example, write out potential headings with relevant cases underneath them as you go along, then later, when you have a more concrete understanding of the topic, do you eliminate/combine headings or something? Do you write out your conclusion before you begin, or even the first sentences for each paragraph? Any other advice?

Thanks all.

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A. Nony Mouse
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Re: Planning memos/other writings

Postby A. Nony Mouse » Tue Feb 12, 2013 2:18 pm

You're a 0L, right? Not to go all "you'll understand this later" on you, but some of these questions will be answered when you take Legal Writing. Law schools usually teach how to organize a memo/brief pretty expressly, and you will generally be writing to answer a very specific question (so you won't be writing a memo on "intentional torts," you'll be writing a memo to answer a specific question, like, "JoeBob did x, y, and z, and Tammy got hurt. Can Tammy bring an invasion of privacy claim?"*). Generally, once you learn the structure of legal writing, you can kind of slot your own analysis in pretty easily. But it's sort of hard to explain/describe before you've started reading cases and understand what you're reading cases for. The organization of your memo (brief, whatever) is frequently determined by the law that you're addressing - for instance, if an invasion of privacy claim has three elements, that is, three things you have to prove to win a claim (I can't remember if it does - I'm making this up), then your memo will at least three sections - one for each element, identifying what that element is, describing what cases have said about that element, and the applying those cases to your facts to decide whether the element is met in your hypo. So you don't have to think very much about how to organize it - you just have to be able to decide which cases go where, if that makes sense. I mean, organization is important, and can be tricky/difficult where the law is unclear, but it's more standardized than your questions suggest.

(I'm trying to think about my own writing process and I can't even describe it terms of planning before I start - mostly because I don't start writing until I've done a lot of research in the case law, to tell me what I need to be writing about. I don't outline anything before I've done that research, for instance.)

tl;dr - I wouldn't worry about trying to figure this out until you're taking LW. I do think being aware that organizing in your head/during the process may not work anymore is a good thing - I think a lot of people struggle with this - but I don't think you can really learn how best to do this before then.

*This isn't a very good example because I'm pulling it out of my ass. But hopefully it gives you some idea.

MinEMorris
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Re: Planning memos/other writings

Postby MinEMorris » Tue Feb 12, 2013 2:40 pm

Not to out or dig myself into a deeper hole here, but I'm actually a 2L. I know my question seems rudimentary, and your response did help me a bit (thank you, Anonymouse, for a thorough response and for not chewing me out for posting here even though it seemed I was a 0l), but I'm still curious about how different people go about organizing the process of research and writing.

I've always just done all of the research I thought would be relevant, compiled resources with intermittent notes about certain issues or key passages from cases, then when I felt I had a strong grasp on everything I needed to address, I'd start writing from the beginning. This can be inefficient for multiple reasons, and I can imagine many different ways to fix these inefficiencies. My previous method always allowed me to get by and do "fine" on legal writing projects, but I'd like to take less time and end up with writing that flowed better because of effective planning. My guess is that people have many different approaches to planning and developing a writing, and my main interest in making this post is to hear what the approaches out there are.

Using Anonymouse's example, one way I can imagine doing it would be to create a heading for the first element, do a bunch of research on that element and how it might apply to the case, then start writing out the first sentence for each paragraph under that heading accompanied by the cases you think you will cite throughout each paragraph. A different approach might be to simply do all of your research for the entire topic, taking down relevant cases or points and summarizing cases you think you will use. After you've finished all of that research, then you could go through and sort all of the resources you've gathered and categorize them (e.g. what elements or issues), and then weed out redundant cases or identify gaps that might need to be filled. I could see advantages to both approaches, and I imagine there are many approaches inbetween those, so I'm curious to find out what people actually do and why they feel it works for them.

I realize I maybe asking to delve deep into a topic that is perhaps inconsequential, but for the foreseeable future I'm going to be doing a lot of legal research and writing in my career. Any method that leads me to writing that flows better, less time spent tweaking my writing after I finish, or less time rehashing the significance of cases or reminding myself where they belong seems like it would add up for real value. Thanks again, if anyone has any thoughts.

Edit: redid post because previous one was gibberish.
Last edited by MinEMorris on Tue Feb 12, 2013 4:34 pm, edited 4 times in total.

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A. Nony Mouse
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Re: Planning memos/other writings

Postby A. Nony Mouse » Tue Feb 12, 2013 4:11 pm

Ha! (to your last part.) So sorry to have assumed! (and I totally didn't look at which forum this was, so no virtue on my part...). I completely retract. :P

Not to get all meta on you, but I think some of what you call inefficiency is inevitable revision. No one gets writing right the first time; you always have to go back and rework. You're not going to be able to avoid realizing, hey, this issue is more important, I need to go back and add it. And once you add it, you'll probably have to re-do some of the organization. That's inevitable. And personally I do a lot of rereading and rehashing of cases - I never get it all on the first read-through, and I don't think anyone can. However, I have always been of the "spew material on the paper, then clean it up" school of writing; pre-planning doesn't work very well for me, and revision is crucially, crucially important.

When I was in LS, I found Scrivener a really helpful piece of software, because of how it allows you to organize your materials; I could import all my cases and organize them by issue, and draft different sections of the piece separately and move them around before committing to a particular organization. I don't use it now mostly because it's not supported anywhere I've worked (and I didn't think it would fly to save materials in a format no one else uses). But I miss it.

This is what I usually do now: I just start with a .doc file of plain old notes. I create basic headings (if it were for the Lemon test, they would probably be "secular purpose," "advance/inhibit," "entanglement") just by typing them in bold. Under each one, I list the cases that are relevant with either a paraphrased parenthetical (say, "prayer at football game fails secular purpose prong") or a quote from the case (I often cut and paste big chunks so I have pertinent language at my fingertips). If the topic's really complex I sometimes separate cases according to in-jurisidiction, out of jurisdiction-state, out of jurisdiction-federal. I just look for cases and read them to begin with (or treatises or statutes or whatever).

Once I start to feel like I've really synthesized that raw material, I usually start writing rule statements with cites/support. ("The secular purpose prong under Lemon requires...." See Smith v. Doe, 12 F.17d 63 etc.) And then I'll apply them. ("Here, the secular purpose prong is not met because...") I don't do this in any particular order; just as the understanding comes to me. So I might write up a whole section about the secular purpose prong and how it applies to the facts at hand while I'm still reading/researching about entanglement. (When to stop researching: when you keep coming across the same cases/rules.)

Once I've come up with all these kinds of building blocks, I compile them in whatever way makes the most sense. So, for instance, the Lemon test is usually written with the entanglement prong last, but if the entanglement and advance/inhibit analyses are really easy in this case, I might put them first just to get them out of the way (e.g., "Here, the entanglement prong is satisfied because... Likewise, the advance/inhibit prong is satisfied because... However, the secular purpose prong is more complicated [and go into a more detailed, extensive discussion of secular purpose].") Also, the order I put them in the writing has nothing to do with the order in which I wrote them.

I frequently think I will need more or fewer headings/subheadings than I end up using. I might think, oh, three headings for the three Lemon test prongs, but then when it comes to one of them, there may be multiple tests for a particular prong and so I end up needing to subdivide further and have different subheadings for each test (my analogy's breaking down because I don't remember much about Lemon!). I don't usually make those decisions ahead of time, I wait till I've done most of the research and am writing. But some of that depends on how well I know the area; some issues that I know well, I know ahead of time what I need to cover, and it's easier to pre-outline than if I'm dealing with a new area of law.

Personally, I would fail miserably at writing out the first sentences to each paragraph before writing, because my brain just doesn't work that way. I don't outline in that much detail, because I can't; I don't figure out what I'm going to say ahead of time, I have to try to write it out before I know what I'm arguing. I do sometimes roughly outline sub-issues, but it's usually because I've been trying to write about something and it's not working, so it's more taking the material I already have and organizing it, rather than picking an organization before I have the material. But other people work differently. While I think people can learn and adapt various methods, at a certain level I think you have to accept the way your mind works. Even from grade school, I never outlined before writing (and in fact, I didn't really outline for final exams in LS). But I do know some people (not in law) who have to work everything out in their head before they put it on paper, and once they do, they do very little revision on paper. That sounds more efficient, but it usually doesn't take them any less time than it takes me, overall - I just start putting things on paper sooner.

I have no idea if that's at all helpful. And sorry to go on so long - I just have spent a lot of my professional (pre-LS) life writing, and thinking about writing and how to write more efficiently. Not saying any of the above comments will help anyone else do so, just that I invariably have a lot to say on the topic. :P

MinEMorris
Posts: 228
Joined: Sat Nov 17, 2012 12:26 am

Re: Planning memos/other writings

Postby MinEMorris » Tue Feb 12, 2013 4:22 pm

Wow, super thanks, a. nony mouse!! This is exactly the kind of insight that I was hoping for. I really, really appreciate you going into so much depth about your general approach. I get the sense that my mind is similar to yours, and so I think the broad strokes of your process would actually be really great for me to incorporate. I'll also be sure to check out scrivener just to see what's up.

Thanks again! I've now tagged this thread so I can review your post and approach my next piece of writing more thoughtfully.

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A. Nony Mouse
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Re: Planning memos/other writings

Postby A. Nony Mouse » Wed Feb 13, 2013 2:45 am

No problem! glad it was useful. And obviously it's just my personal approach, so no guarantees or anything.




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