1 August 2013

How to Write a Law Essay: Planning Time: Practical Steps

This post is a twenty-five step guide to writing a law essay; the main theme is organisation. I offer a list, which students may use to plan their time. As with almost all the advice on this site (and elsewhere) there are other ways to structure your time or plan for essay writing. I will discuss as many of those other methods as I have time to do so in other posts. For now, I hope this one helps.


Note: consider your own work style and ensure it takes precedence over my advice when and if necessary. My words should not blindly be followed. Always be critical. Even be critical of an instruction to be critical. Even be critical of a warning about an instruction to be…

1. The Twenty-Five Steps

  1. Read: with the essay topic in mind.
  2. Write: notes as they form as ideas when you read.
  3. Plan: with the notes to create a preliminary structure. Leave gaps between lines.
  4. Read: with the plan from 3 in mind.
  5. Write: in the plan's gaps when 4's reading presents answers. Fill up spare sheets with notes that do not yet fit in the plan.
  6. Type: your notes from 5 to produce a rough first draft.
  7. Stop: and do something else; you deserve a break. Leave your work for a day if time permits.
  8. Re-write: according to a coherent structure that will only become apparent after a first draft (it is hoped this coherent structure started to suggest itself in step 6).
  9. Ensure: each assertion is supported. Logic or a reference is necessary to support a premise in an argument.
  10. Ensure: paragraphs begin with topic sentences and end in intermediate conclusions. This should summarise the paragraph, fit it within the essay as a whole, and lead the reader to the next paragraph.
  11. Ensure: infinitives are not split.
  12. Ensure: all paragraphs:
    1. Concern the essay topic;
    2. Analyse what your topic sentence implied would be analysed.
  13. Apply: your analysis to the essay question.
  14. Ensure: you criticise any conclusions drawn from your analysis-application. For example you could criticise according to:
    1. Broader issues/implications;
    2. Similar cases;
    3. History;
    4. Comparative statutes;
    5. Politics;
    6. Philosophy.
  15. Write: the introduction in a few words.
  16. Write: an essay roadmap after the introduction to show readers where the essay will go (and sometimes how and why the essay will get there).
  17. Write: a conclusion supported by logic and your intermediate paragraph-conclusions.
  18. Do not: introduce anything new in your conclusion.
  19. Proofread: the essay and re-write as necessary.
  20. Read: the essay aloud and correct mistakes that will suddenly appear with speech.
  21. Check: all footnotes end in a full-stop (or period or '.').
  22. Shorten: your footnotes with abbreviations or key words from source-titles after the source's first full use.
  23. Check: headings are not the last line on a page; carriage return (press 'enter'/'return') if they are.
  24. Use: your word-processor's spell-check and proofreader functions.
  25. Repeat: steps 19 to 25 one final time before you print and hand in or upload your essay to your university system.

2. A Little Explanation

The above steps, more or less, are those I have tacitly followed since I begin to be awarded 70+% for assessments during my final LLB year. During my LLM, I formulated the above process to analyse my own writing behaviours and techniques; I hoped that analysis would allow me to make changes to flaws in my method. As the above steps are in a developed form, and I did better in my LLM than my LLB, I can only presume that personal analysis helped my writing improve.

3. To Answer a Problem Question

Problem questions in law demand a few changes to the above process. I will consider how to adapt the above steps to problem questions and write a post accordingly. Until then the main missing elements precede step 1:
  1. Find: the scenario's problems; this will require knowledge attained from lectures or by reading.
  2. Identify: the problems and potentially relevant case law (from-memory or a brief glance at your notes).
  3. Consider: the details; and remember the question's facts may be distinguishable from the case law you have read and been taught about--it is better actively to recognise this than to squeeze the scenario into a similar case's fact model.
For problem questions, step 13 should read:
  1. Apply: your analysis. Consider a maximum of a single problem or one key part of a problem per paragraph.

4. Further Reading

For any readers who want more information, or more detail about the above, I recommend you start with Bryan Greetham, How to Write Better Essays (3rd edn, Palgrave Macmillan 2013).

For any readers who seek more specific advice for problem questions, or advice more specific-to-law than Greetham gives, Glanville Williams, Learning the Law (A.T.H. Smith (ed), 15th edn, Sweet & Maxwell 2013) is a great place to start.


Created: 31 July 2013. Version 1.2: 29 September 2013.





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