What I Did This Spring Vacation:

Why, I wrote onto the UCLA Law Review. (I was smart enough to resign before they gave me cite-checking assignments.)

What was I smoking when I decided to do this? Why did I decide to do this? My Academic Legal Writing book gives advice to students who are trying to write on to law review, but I realized that this advice is based on my now 16-year-old experience of writing onto law review during my first year of law school, coupled with my general knowledge about legal writing. Not nothing, but I figured I could do better. So I took several days — which, valuable as I think law review is, proved to nonetheless be several not very pleasant days — and did the write-on.

I naturally cleared this experiment with the higher-ups at the law review, both because I was creating more work for them (though less than 1% more, since I was one of about 140 people who participated) and because if they wanted 35 people and I made it as one of them, I wanted to make sure they understood that they'd also need to take the 36th. (It would be a pretty nasty turn if I ended up edging out some deserving law student.) But though the top people at the law review knew I was doing it, they didn't know my anonymous exam number, and most law review editors didn't know that I was participating at all.

And as it happens, I think my experiment did indeed prove very valuable to me. I learned quite a bit about the process that I hadn't thought of before, confirmed some things I thought I had known, and concluded that a few recommendations that I'd made were a good deal less sound than I thought they were. I plan to use what I learned when I'm working on the Third Edition of my book (which should be out in Fall 2007). And I plan to blog much of it here in the next few weeks, since I know that at many schools the law review competition is still coming up.

In the meantime, I just thought I'd mention my having done this, just as a reminder that, yes, I'm as odd a duck as I seem.

UPDATE: My favorite comment so far, from commenter wt: "How very Drew Barrymore in 'Never Been Kissed' of you!"

What I Learned This Spring Vacation -- Doing Things More Than Once:

As I mentioned in the post on my odd vacation-time activities, I've now realized that a few of the suggestions I give in my Academic Legal Writing book aren't as sound as I thought they were. I'll naturally revise things accordingly in my third edition, but for now let me pass this along as a sort of online update.

Write-On Competitions and the Bluebooking/Cite-Checking/Editing Test:

Some law review competitions involve both a writing assignment and a bluebooking/cite-checking/editing test. Others give you just a writing assignment, but give considerable weight to the bluebooking and proofreading of the paper. Generally the substance, the organization, and the writing style are given more weight than the more technical bluebooking, cite-checking, and proofreading. But the latter are often given a good deal of weight, too, and for good reason: Bluebooking, cite-checking, and proofreading will be a huge part of your job as a law review editor, and the law review is naturally looking for people who are good at that, and (more broadly) who are careful, meticulous, and hard-working.

But here's the twist: The substantive evaluation of your paper will inherently be subjective. You might have a great argument, but if the readers take a different view, they may not evaluate it as positively as they should. That's true for professors -- the grading of essay exams is often quite subjective (not by any means random, but subjective). And it's even more true for law review write-on grading, given that the essays are usually split among different teams of several readers, so that different essays are graded by different people.

On the other hand, what bluebooking, cite-checking, and proofreading errors you caught (or made) is more objective. If you do really well on this, then you can insulate yourself considerably from the vagaries of the more subjective grading of the substance.

So if you think you can be good at the technical stuff -- if you have a careful eye and a meticulous temperament, and can catch most errors if you have the time (and if you've familiarized yourself with the Bluebook) -- then invest some time into the technical part of the test.

Naturally, you should still not bomb the substantive part, so don't let your bluebooking completely distract you from your writing. But if you think you can be good at bluebooking, work hard at it. That way, even if the readers are for their own idiosyncratic reasons not wowed by your substance (brilliant substance, of course, but brilliance so often goes unappreciated!), they will be wowed by your objectively great performance on the technical portion.

Something My Law Review Write-On Exercise Reminded Me About:

I've said it before, but it's worth repeating -- read the instructions, and then reread them some time later.

When I first read the instructions while doing this Spring's law review write-on competition, I saw that they told me to include no more than 80 characters on each line. I can do that, I thought; I carefully adjusted my margins, and thought I was set. (The instructions also told me to use a nonproportionately spaced font, so this fixed character limit was easy enough.)

A few days later, I followed the advice I gave in my book (the point of the exercise, after all, was to test and improve on the advice that I've been giving) -- and saw that the instructions said no more than 70 characters on each line. Whoops! Fortunately, I caught the problem in time, and had plenty of time to trim my paper by 12.5%. (It turns out that one can almost always find enough flab in a first draft to cut that much, and even more.) But I shudder to think of how embarrassed I'd have been if I hadn't caught it in time -- or if I had erred in reading the instructions 16 years ago, on my real write-on, when the error would have cost me an important credential for my future legal career.

Now I'm generally a pretty careful and attentive fellow when it comes to things like this. I know how to read. I know my 7s from my 8s. I don't even have the excuse of having been under the influence of the pressure that ordinary first-year students feel when they're doing the law review write-on. Yet I still made a dumb mistake -- which just shows how easy dumb mistakes like this are to make.

So protect yourself from these mistakes: Make sure that you reread the instructions a few days after you first read them, so that your mind is fresh enough to pay attention to them, but so that there's still time to correct your paper if you find that you misread the instructions at first.