November 14, 2007

In praise of short law review articles.

"[M]y heroes Charles Black and Arthur Allen Leff were known for their interesting short pieces, but the world of law-review writing moved away to massive tomes for a while," writes Glenn Reynolds, who likes to write short articles (and short blog posts).

Massive tomes... I call them "unpublishable books." But they are published, as articles, in law reviews, and no one reads them. The shorter an article is, the more likely people will read the whole thing. If it's long, sane readers will adopt strategies of skipping and skimming.

The same goes for court opinions. How I would love to teach my Constitutional Law classes without making the students buy a casebook. I'd email them a list of links to the great cases, which we'd read carefully and deeply.

But the cases are far too long, and the students would be fools to read every word. Like a practicing lawyer grappling with the new cases, they'd have to develop methods for reading without reading. There aren't enough hours in the day, and the dull verbosity doesn't reward close reading. So we're stuck with the casebooks, the parts of the cases that the lawprof editor thought the students should get to see. You'd think the judges would want to defend themselves from the law professor's editorial judgment, but no, they must swirl up an unreadable mass of verbiage. Is it because, made short and clear, the writing would show its flaws?

I'm often asked what good lawprof blogging can do for legal scholarship. There's the example of concision. Learn from it!


ricpic said...

Concision in style, precision in thought, decision in life.

-Victor Hugo

rhhardin said...

and the dull verbosity doesn't reward close reading.

It's nevertheless part of the edifice that makes up the institution of the law.

Not reading closely is not closely studied in legal theory.

Simon said...

Perhaps this is semantics but I don't wholly agree.

"Massive tomes... I call them 'unpublishable books.' But they are published, as articles, in law reviews, and no one reads them. The shorter an article is, the more likely people will read the whole thing."

Neal Peart once did a terrific drum instruction video wherein he offered advice that I think is apt: the trouble with KISS - keep it simple, stupid - is that it often leads to LOVE - leave out virtually everything. Concision is a virtue, but in extremis it can become inelegant. I understand and agree with your point that an article has to be short enough to be readable, but if that's achieved by vacuum-sealing the writing, by having prose so terse and compressed that it has no air in it, then it woun't matter that your article's twenty pages instead of fifty because the reader will asphixiate before they reach the first page turn.

With all due respect, I would suggest that it is clarity that is the goal, not concision, and that while concision is almost without exception an element of clear writing, it isn't the whole picture. This is a picture that emerges even looking at your own work, I would suggest. Your writing is often concise, but it is also elegant and fluid, and those attributes no less surely serve the goal of clarity. An essay should be as short as the efficient and elegant communication of the ideas needed to be conveyed will permit. Which is, presumably, why some of your articles are relatively long (perhaps not massively so by the standards of contemporaneous articles, but compared to, say Who's to Blame for Law Reviews, which IIRC is your shortest published article but which deals very concisely with one idea), but they're certainly not unreadable and they're certainly not unread.