What to Write About

question markYou have to write a paper and so far you’ve gotten as far as “what should I write about?”  It’s still the beginning of the semester, so you’re okay, but you need to find a topic soon.  If you’re still stuck on the first step, here are a few hints.

First, think about your paper as more than an assignment.  True, you wouldn’t be writing it if it weren’t an assignment and you will be receiving a grade for work, but more than that, you have the opportunity to add important ideas to the body of legal discourse.  You should be looking for a topic that is novel — you shouldn’t just be summarizing what everyone else has already said but pick a topic that you can say something new about.

Regardless of the topic you choose, you will learn something about the law you didn’t know before and think about the law in a way you never contemplated — your professor knows this; it’s why you were assigned the paper in the first place.  This paper will add something to how you practice law.

Second, write about something that really interests you.  Before you commit to a topic, think about it for a little while, discuss it with your classmates and friends.  If you find yourself getting excited when you talk about it, it’s probably a good topic.  On the other hand, if your mind starts to wander as soon as you sit down to research or you come up with a series of excuses not to start your research, consider finding a new topic, one that sparks your interest more than any of those excuses.

Good advice, but still, where do you find that magic topic?  Start with what you know.  You did something before you came to law school — had a job, a career, studied a subject other than law.  You have hobbies and interests.  For example, you’re an artist — think about intellectual property; you’re a scientist — how do courts treat scientific evidence; an athlete — international sports law.

Talk to your professors, either the one who assigned the paper or one who teaches a subject you’re interested in.  They will know what’s going on in their areas of law, where the controversies are and what’s being discussed on the listservs and blogs.  They can help you take a germ of an idea and turn it into a paper topic, or narrow a broad topic into a concise thesis.

What’s going on in town?  In the state?  In the region?  Read or watch the news.  What makes you yell at the television or puzzle at how something will be resolved?  There are plenty of news stories that are directly legal and plenty of others with legal aspects.

Congress, your state legislature, and your city council are probably up to something, whether it’s something that you support or something you absolutely disagree with.  Congress, state legislatures and even city councils have websites you can look at to track current legislation.  The Library of Congress’s new Congress.gov website is a great place to start researching federal legislation.  In Montana, the legislature meets only every-other year and won’t be in session again until Jan. 2015, but you can research what they did at their last session (and other previous sessions) on the Montana Legislature website.  Legislative hearings are a great way to understand the multiple sides of an issue — likely there will be at least one side you agree with and one that drives you nuts.

See what lawyers are talking about.  If you work at a law firm, ask the lawyers there for an idea — chances are, there are unanswered questions they have been considering.  The American Bar Association sections all have websites with various resources that might make you start thinking about an issue.

If you’re still baffled, peruse legal news and current awareness sources.  Here are a few:

And if after all that you still don’t know what to write about, go visit with your librarian.  We have new books, newsletters, journals, databases, all of which are full of interesting legal issues and controversies.

Selecting a topic and formulating a thesis is part of the writing process; instead of being frustrated by it, think about what you’re learning just by digging into the law.

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