Bazelon and Lithwick on How to Write About the Law

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March 17 2014 6:00 PM
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How to Write About the Law and Not Put People to Sleep

Emily Bazelon and Dahlia Lithwick’s advice for experts who want to write.

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Illustration by Charlie Powell

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More than once, I’ve heard Slate editor David Plotz guess that the average Slate reader is a lawyer. And Slate is fortunate to have smart readers, many of them professionally accomplished lawyers, academics, or scientists. Sometimes these readers even become writers.

I asked Emily Bazelon and Dahlia Lithwick, two legal experts who write and edit for Slate, to give some advice to lawyers and academics who might want to write for Slate. —Jeff Friedrich, Slate Plus associate editor

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Emily Bazelon: Hey Dahlia, what makes a Slate-y legal piece? You and I have been trying to answer this question for years, in writing for and editing the magazine's section about law, Jurisprudence. Let's start by saying we are open to all comers: journalists, law students, professors, lawyers, the guy down the street who has a smart, strong argument to make. I am all for people within the legal profession trying to write for our general audience, because their work often yields valuable insights into public debate that lie just beneath the surface.

I look for two kinds of pitches. The first tells me something I don't know about a topic that's in the news, a startling argument or piece of context. For these pieces, there is a premium on speed. When the news breaks, I'm hungry for a fresh take on it. The second kind of story I look for can be more evergreen. It's about something I've never heard of before, a window into some weird and quirky and interesting world. 

The best pitches, in either category, draw on expertise the writers have or research and reporting they've already done to figure out what they want to say. Not “I'm thinking about X and wondering Y,” but rather “I thought about X, and I figured out I want to argue Y, based on Z.”

Dahlia Lithwick: I totally agree. One thing I like to tell writers right off the bat is to make an argument. Slate is an opinion magazine, so we need to see the arc of an argument in the pitch: a roadmap for where the writer is going and how it will end.

As the debate rages about the vitality and salience of academic writing, I like to think that Slate has been a place where a lot of legal academics have floated new arguments, tested some wacky theories, and done it without footnotes or fanfare. I also agree that what grabs me in a pitch is a sense of urgency: an idea that must be expressed because it’s too fabulous to go another day in the writer’s mind. I also want someone to go places I can’t go and shed light on injustices (or justices!) (or Justices!) I can’t see.

Bazelon: I have a few words about what doesn't work so well in a pitch.

Attaching a law review article, or anything more than 1,000 words, and asking if we might convert it into a Slate piece. Unless you are our best friend, we will not.

Another warning sign: lots of boring words and jargon. Show us in the pitch that you can write for people who have not gone to law school by using the plain English they understand. When the Supreme Court “grants cert” it also agrees to hear a case. The second phrase everyone gets. There is a place for legal Latin in legal writing and a place for jargon among specialists and academics. But one of my main hopes for our legal coverage in Slate is that we are translating. We are taking ideas and concepts and developments in the legal world and the academy and making them accessible, so everyone can see what's going on here and what the stakes are.

OK, save me from sounding grumpy. What else?

Lithwick: No, I think I will see your grumpy and raise you this one more don’t: Don’t hedge. 

There is something in legal writing that forces most of us to do three introductory paragraphs of hemming and hawing, throat-clearing, taking both sides, and to-be-sure-ing. I don’t know whether there is a place for that level of dodging and weaving in a law-review piece, but there is no way to mash it into a 1,200-word Slate essay. So I often find myself telling Slate legal writers to start their piece at the third paragraph, skipping all the obligatory nuance and fairness, to just make the argument.

It’s a very small request, but it counts for a lot. I think often both of us see all that stuff at the top and stop reading, and I think sometimes it obscures what may be a really great argument. I have a lot of lawyers respond that they are just trying to be fair. Stipulated. But there is no space in a 1,200-word argument piece to make all three of the other sides’ points.

In nongrumpy advice? We love trials! We love people who go to trials, or see trials, or think about trials. If you have been at some courthouse and saw something interesting, we want to hear from you. 

Bazelon: Yes, we love trials, and wish I could go to more of them myself.

Which reminds me to say that although you are right that sleep is primarily an opinion magazine, we also value reporting. And we would like to have more of it in Jurisprudence. It's amazing what facts and stories can do: They make everything richer and sometimes utterly confound our own expectations. We don't have a big budget for this. But we would like to take bets on some good and promising projects. If you have one, send it along!

One final piece of advice: If you want to write for Slate, read Slate. That goes for any other publication as well. When I’ve tried to pitch magazines that I don't read, I usually fall flat on my face. When you're sending a pitch, you want to feel at home.

Lithwick: Heh heh. You wrote “sleep” instead of Slate.

Bazelon: My favorite auto fill.

Sent from my iPhone; please excuse brevity and errors

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