Voice

As a PhD student, I found writing really difficult, so I didn’t like it much.  Looking back, it was because I hadn’t figured out what I wanted to say.  I would write from quote to quote, over-reliant on what other people had said, but without really saying much myself.  My supervisor told me it would get easier with practice.  He was right.  Today, there’s nothing I enjoy more than writing, but it did take me quite a few years to find my ‘writing voice’.  I think the process of writing my first book was the turning point.  Writing the proposal, I was mindful of pitching an idea, of setting out my stall.  Expecting that property peer reviewers might consider the approach unconventional, I pitched hard – anticipating critique and trying to meeting it head on; pressing hard on my conviction that we needed to see the problem differently, and that what I had to say mattered enough to be said.  One of the reviewers commented that ‘this book has an agenda’ – I resolved to pursue that agenda in the final manuscript.  It felt a bit risky, but I forced myself to stop worrying about whether people would agree with me (I didn’t expect that anyone would), but focus on presenting the problem, and the way forward – as I saw it – as robustly as I could.

Perspective and persuasion

Years ago, a friend who works at Berkeley Public Library sent me one of their t-shirts.  On the back, it says: “Berkeley Public Library: changes the way you look at things”.  I often think of that when I write.  I don’t dwell on whether every (or any) reader will agree with what I write; I consider it enough to offer a new perspective, and perhaps for some readers to change the way they look at the problem.  If I didn’t think I had a new perspective to offer, I wouldn’t bother writing about the topic.[1]  And when you focus on inviting the reader to look at the topic or subject through a different lens – and perhaps be persuaded that this offers a better solution – it helps keep the argument and analysis front and centre.  I always keep the reader’s questioning voice in my ear: it keeps me focused on explaining; I try to anticipate and meet questions head on; but not to be paralysed by imagined criticism.  Leading with the argument helps me stay focused on the distinctive perspective I’m trying to advance; it reminds me to limit the descriptive material to what is absolutely needed to set the scene, and as proof points to support the analysis.  The focus is not on what the law is, but on how to better articulate or understand the connections and consequences, and why that matters.  Each paragraph needs to advance that analysis by another move, building up the single core argument of the piece.  The reader – who will come to any piece of writing with their own agenda, biases, existing understandings and (known or unknown) knowledge gaps – needs to be persuaded to take on my perspective – this requires a tightly-focused analysis – a clearly articulated main argument, made out step-by-step through a series of sub-arguments, each of which is rigorously supported by relevant evidence.  And, in the end, putting your stake in the ground to fly the flag of your own conclusions, which are rooted in the case you have made.

Passion

Most academics, as far as I can tell, write about what they care about: this is what drives the agenda – the need to persuade others to see an important issue through the perspective you are offering – because there is something at stake.  Early on, I sometimes chose topics because I needed to get an article written, and/or because there seemed to be a ‘gap’ in the literature.  I tend to be sceptical now of papers that claim to ‘fill a gap’ – wondering if perhaps the gap exists because the point doesn’t really matter much.  There needs to be a better reason to write (or read) a paper than the fact that no-one else has cared enough to bother writing it yet. My criteria for choosing what to write about are that the topic should be one on which I have something distinctive to say; where I think I can make the case that others should care to read about it; and that I care enough to write about it.  If you can find a topic on which you feel passionately that others should understand it better, or differently, or from another perspective, it gears you towards effectively communicating your distinctive perspective – this is when writing gets exciting! Your passion for what you want to say helps engage the reader, because you’re focused on speaking to them, inviting them to join you in your perspective, and offering the arguments and information they need to make that choice.

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Feedback

One note of caution – there is a sweet spot between distinctive perspectives, rigorously argued and engaging to the reader, on the one hand, and a polemic rant on the other.  It’s a line I have to keep watch on – because while I usually write from an agenda, I understand that scholarly persuasion relies on rigour as well as passion. In this, I rely on many friends, colleagues, former colleagues, and sometimes even scholars I admire but don’t yet know, whom I ask to read work in draft and offer feedback; and then on the review process.  While it is always a pain not to have hit the nail on the head, I don’t believe any good scholarship comes out of the box finished, and rigorous review always makes for a better final product. I am completely un-precious about criticism of my writing – and even when I don’t agree with every point that readers make it’s always helpful to re-appraise your work through the reader’s eye.  If they haven’t understood, or have misunderstood, what I’m trying to say, its clearly I need to go back and say it better.

And finally, as I hesitate over clicking ‘send’ on this note – I take a deep breath, remember that reasonable people can disagree on what to say or how to say it, that the perfect is the enemy of the good, and that the worst thing that happens if someone doesn’t like what you’ve written is that they don’t like what you’ve written.  I love writing now because – if I’m doing it right – it feels a little bit brave, a little bit risky, and sometimes even a bit subversive, to get off the fence, say what you think and have a go at changing the way your readers look at something that matters.  So I shut down the inner critic, get on with putting it out there and get into the conversation.

[1] I talk about this in L Fox O’Mahony, ‘The Politics of Lloyd’s Bank v Rosset’ in Landmark Cases on Property Law, S Douglas, R Hickey & E Waring (eds), (2015, Bloomsbury, Hart Imprint), pp179-199.

Lorna Fox O’Mahony, Professor, Essex School of Law

(Suggested citation L. Fox O’Mahony, “How I learned to love academic writing” available at https://law-academics-unblocked.org/2016/10/10/lorna-fox-omahony-how-i-learned-to-love-academic-writing)