Susan Duncan's blog

The Second Step in Writing Abstracts - Creative Reading

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During the retrieval reading phase, the writer identified and categorized a great deal of material to be used for the various parts of the abstract (purpose, methodology, results, implications).  The next step requires the writer to condense all of this material into the most important themes and relevant conclusions.  At this point the writer should not be overly concerned with exact phrasing or proper grammar but instead trying to tease out the key concepts that must be included in the abstract.

 

Remembering the key components to include in abstracts for law papers will make this job easier.  Ask yourself whether you have:

 

  • Piqued readers interest and curiosity
  • Given information about the topic to be covered
  • Provided the argument you will make and clearly identified the central thesis
  • Explained how your article fits with the other research in that area and what is new and original about your work

 

This challenge for this first draft is to make the abstract not only informative but interesting.  An abstract will not lead to a download if the information is vague, dull or without context.  The reader wants to know what the piece is about and how what you have to say adds to the discourse.  Most readers will not be patient enough to wade through a dense, long abstract to try to uncover the diamond in the rough.  Abstracts should not be mystery novels but instead abstracts should be concise statements in which a reader can easily locate the purpose, methodology, results, and implications of your work.  This will require several rounds of editing to make sure the abstract, like all good legal writing, is clear and concise.  In future blog postings I will give examples of abstracts that do just that.

The First Step In Writing Abstracts - Retrieval Reading

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In my last post I mentioned Edward T. Cremmins' excellent book on abstracting which suggests a  three-stage analytical reading process when writing abstracts.  The first step, retrieval reading, has the writer read quickly through the text looking for possible information to include in the abstract.  Cremmins uses an easy and effective system to mark various parts of the paper for possible future use in an abstract.  Cremmins assigns geometric symbols (square, circle, arrow) to various components of the text which need to be included in an abstract (purpose, methodology, results, implications).  For example, in the margins he places a circle by material discussing purpose, scope and methods and a square for results.  

 

I use a similar method with my Basic Legal Skills students when I teach them the formula for organizing legal analysis (CREAC).  I tell them to use highlighters to mark various parts of their memos so they can make sure they are following an analytical structure that legal readers know and expect.  For example, they should use a green highlighter to mark rule sentences and a yellow highlighter to flag sentences which apply the law to the client's facts.  Mary Beth Beazley from Ohio State first introduced me to this method which helps many students keep their work organized by helping them in a very visual way to avoid the common error of discussing client facts before explaining the law. Abstract writers could modify this process and during their retrieval reading use different colored highlighters to mark key terms, phrases and sentences for the various elements of the abstract.  Having the material already classified by elements will make the actual drafting process much simpler for the writer. 

 

Others suggest reverse outlining which involves trying to write one main idea from each paragraph of the paper and then grouping these main ideas for each of the paper's sections into one sentence. See The Writing Center University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, Abstracts http://www.unc.edu/depts/wcweb/handouts/abstracts.html.   This might be particularly useful in law since we are trained to begin paragraphs with straightforward thesis sentences.  A similar strategy is to cut and paste sentences of key passages into a document which can later be edited into an abstract.  Id.

 

Spending a little bit of time on this retrieval reading process will ultimately save time for the writer and produce better and more informative abstracts.  When writers locate key terms, phrases and sentences before writing the various components of an abstract, they consciously and systematically identify the most important parts of the paper.  Skipping this step and failing to organize the material at the beginning of the abstract writing process will only make your efforts at condensing the text for the abstract unmanageable and frustrating.

 

The Process of Writing Abstracts

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In his excellent book, The Art Of Abstracting, Edward T. Cremmins offers simple, straightforward advice for writing abstracts.  Cremmins suggests writing excellent abstracts requires a mastery of the three "Rs."  The three "Rs' refers to a three-stage analytical reading method that mirrors the task of thinking, writing and editing.  Each step of the process requires the writer to engage in different types of reading including retrieval reading, creative reading and critical reading.

 

Cremmins breaks the process of abstract writing into four identifiable and discrete steps:

"1. focusing on the basic features of the materials to be abstracted;

2. identifying relevant information;

3. extracting, organizing, and reducing the relevant information into a coherent unit, usually one paragraph long; and

4.  refining the completed abstract through editing." (page 15)

 

Future posts will examine each of these stages. 

Types of Abstracts

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Abstracts can take the form of either descriptive abstracts or informative abstracts.  Typically informative abstracts will be better suited for legal scholarship since descriptive abstracts merely describe the problem and the methods used.  These type abstracts are useful for retrieving articles but not particularly useful to a researcher interested in the paper's conclusions and recommendations.  [Robert Goldbort, Abstracts for Scientific Articles, 65 Journal of Environmental Health 26, 27 (November 2002)]. 

 The primary purpose of informative abstracts is to convey new scientific information.  As a result, the author's conclusions and recommendations should be given the most space with little discussion of past studies or background material.  Legal scholars should remember this and make sure they do not devote too much space to describing the legal issue while only giving cursory review to proposed solutions.  Readers will be grateful to find specific thesis sentences clearly identified in the abstract.  "Physicist Michael Alley (1996) quotes Winston Churchill as having said:  ‘Please be good enough to put your conclusions and recommendations on one sheet of paper at the very beginning of your report, so that I can even consider reading it.'" [Id.]

Writing Abstracts

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At the recent Legal Writing Institute's conference, I presented a session on demystifying the SSRN process.  During that presentation I discussed the importance of posting a well written abstract.  Generally only one out of five abstract views result in a download from SSRN.  Also all SSRN downloads begin with the reader visiting the abstract page.  Accordingly, time spent on constructing informative and interesting abstracts may directly translate into more downloads of your paper.  In contrast, boring, lengthy or vague abstracts may result in readers deciding to forgo the opportunity to read the entire paper. 

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines abstract as "Summary, Epitome."[The Merriam-Webster Dictionary 22 (Merriam-Webster Inc. 1997)].  Others define an abstract as "a stand-alone statement that briefly conveys the essential information of a paper, article, document or book; presents the objective, methods, results, and conclusions of a research project; has a brief, non-repetitive style." [http://www.rpi.edu/web/wrtingcenter/abstracts.html].  Although the definition seems simple enough, I had difficulty finding very many resources which discussed techniques or strategies for writing legal abstracts.  Not appreciating the art of abstract writing, many of us write these abstracts at the last minute not using any particular method or structure.  In fact, some of us may just cut and paste the introduction renaming it the abstract. 

To help raise awareness about the importance of abstracts, I plan to spend the next few weeks blogging about elements writers may wish to include in their abstracts.  I hope to begin a dialogue about various types of abstracts and which might be most effective for the legal academy to use.  I plan to give concrete suggestions not only on the necessary components of an abstract but also on the process of writing abstracts.  And we do not need to re-invent the wheel.  Our colleagues in the science field already have wonderful resources on abstract writing that we can adapt to fit our needs. 

 I look forward to this abstract writing series and invite you all to send your suggestions and comments to me.

Demystifying the SSRN Process: How To Make It Work for You

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On July 15th I will be presenting a session on The Social Science Research Network (SSRN) at the Legal Writing Institute’s conference in Indianapolis.  SSRN is one of the key places scholars post academic papers.  My presentation will introduce participants to SSRN, explain the benefits of SSRN, and provide step-by-step instructions for using SSRN.  This presentation seeks to demystify the SSRN process and help participants become comfortable with the submission process including how to write effective abstracts.  I have attached the PowerPoint slides for the presentation.

Pretrial Publicity in High Profile Trials

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The growth and influence of nontraditional media and the convergence of these technological platforms on mainstream media brings a host of new issues surrounding media coverage of high profile trials. Hardly a new phenomenon, the media has made a business of covering high profile trials since before the founding of this nation. But the advent of blogs in 1999 and the growing influence they have on the public further complicates the issue. In addition, adoption of more nontraditional delivery platforms, such as blogs, by traditional media as they strive to retain and enlarge readership confirms the growing influence of these nontraditional sources of information for the public. The impact this technology has on the controversy surrounding media coverage of trials, especially celebrity prosecutions, provides ample fodder to ask whether current United States' media practices and the courts' regulation of these practices best serve the individuals involved, the public and the criminal justice system.

Any response to this pretrial publicity explosion needs to be rethought in light of today's new world of communication. This Article analyzes and evaluates many of the current approaches used to balance pretrial publicity against the right to a fair trial and the right to privacy. Concluding these frameworks fail to adequately protect individuals' rights, the Article explores and evaluates suggestions offered by other commentators. Finally, the Article concludes by finding none of these suggestions work but proposes an alternative approach which better balances the freedom of speech, the right to a fair trial and the right to privacy, all of which should be respected as important values in our society.

 

To download the article go to:

http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1117864

Another Approach to Constitutional Issues

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Unlike the United States, South Africa has a special Constitutional Court devoted solely to hearing matters arising under the constitution.  The Constitutional Court opened on February 14, 1995 and has 11 members.  These members are appointed by the President after consultation with the Chief Justice and leaders of the political parties in Parliament.  The Justices who serve nonrenewable 12 to 15 year terms are a mix of academics, advocates and lower court judges.  The Judges sit in Braamfontein and wear distinctive green robes.

 

Americans may be interested in knowing about some of the landmark cases this court has already addressed in its short history.  I mention just two here.

 

The Death Penalty:  Although much debate ensued when drafting the constitution about the death penalty, the drafters chose not to decide whether it would be permitted in South Africa.  The Constitutional Court abolished the death penalty during one of the first cases heard by it in 1995.  The decision can be found at http://www.constitutionalcourt.org.za/uhtbin/cgisirsi/20080415073642/SIRSI/0/520/J-CCT3-94

 

Gay Marriage: The common law definition and section 30(1) of the Marriage Act of 1961 were ruled unconstitutional because they did not permit same-sex couples to enjoy the same status, entitlements and responsibilities accorded to married heterosexual couples.  To learn more about the case go to http://www.constitutionalcourt.org.za/uhtbin/cgisirsi/20080415075522/SIRSI/0/520/S-CCT60-04.

 

Many more interesting cases can be found at http://www.constitutionalcourt.org.za/site/thecourt/history.htm#cases.  Some of the issues addressed involve the right to housing, right to health care and access to HIV/Aids treatment, and the right of prisoners to vote.  For those of you interested, this website also gives an excellent history and overview of the South African Constitutional Court.  I found it fascinating as the Court is dealing with many issues and topics currently raging in the United States.  Seeing another nation’s perspectives on these topics may make our debates more meaningful.

A Plea to South Africa and the World

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The words may not be identical but the plea is always the same:

 

“Please South Africa, we are crying unto you and hoping that you will follow your God-given instinct and bring to an end all this chaos in Zimbawe.  I am a Zimbabwean person, and I know that we are rather fearful, we are not as brave as you are.  We are too scared to go to the streets.  Please we need your help, intervene on our behalf and the Lord will bless you.
 
Thank you South Africa, please help!” posted on http://www.sabcnews.com/features/zimbabwe_elections_2008/

 

Yet President Thabo Mbeki’s response remains inexplicable.  After meeting with Mugabe this past weekend, President Mbeki reported to the world that there was no crisis and the world should be patient for the results.  And yet I hope every morning that The United Nations or other world powers will do something to help.  Normally, I would probably barely notice what is happening but being right next door to Zimbabwe has made it all too real for me.  Seeing this tragedy unfold in front of me is so heartbreaking as you read the desperation in the voices of the Zimbabweans.  The world can wait no longer.  Already retired military have terrorized the farmers and more violence is promised.  How can South Africa, the United States and the rest of the world do nothing?  We must answer these pleas before it is too late.  Africa, please do not abandon this country which once was the bread basket of the continent.  It makes one seriously question what we would do if there was oil under the ground.

  

Does America need an official language?

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For several years now there has been a push by some to make English the official language of the United States.  As in the previous two sessions, Congress has a bill before it to make English the national language and to make it the common unifying language of the country.  Although public polls show support for this movement, others strongly criticize this effort.  As a multilingual and multiracial nation, they would prefer the United States either not adopt a national language or adopt several languages to reflect the diverse makeup of our country.

 

Visiting South Africa has provided me with a new lens to view this debate.  The South African Constitution recognizes eleven languages as official languages.  In addition, the government is required to “take practical and positive measures to elevate the status and advance the use of these languages.”  The Constitution imposes this duty in recognition of the “historically and diminished use and status of the indigenous languages” of their people.  Language plays a pivotal role in forming a person’s personal and cultural identity.  Forcing a person to use a non-native language arguably takes away from who they are as a person.

 

Yet the goal of multilingualism, even if laudatory, has profound practical challenges.  In his excellent article (Vol 124 Part 1 The South African Law Journal page 84) )discussing the impact this language policy has on the court system, Dean Michael Cowling of the University of Natal at Pietermaritzburg addresses many of the competing policies at play.  United States’ policymakers would be well served to read his article and thoughtfully analyze these issues and concerns before making any decision on whether to adopt one or more national languages.

 

Some of the issues that need answers include: 

  • Would the courts translate the opinions in all official languages?
  •  How much would that cost?
  •  If a trial was conducted in one language, would the court record also be in that language? 
  • What happens if legal terms are not translatable in another language (many of the African indigenous languages are not as fully developed yet with respect to legal terms so there are no direct equivalents)? 
  • What about the problem of mistakes made in translations- which version of a law would a court use if there are differences between them?
  •  Should we have a bilingual language policy or a multilingual policy? 
  • Some black judges in South Africa argue court proceedings conducted in multiple languages would be “divisive, illusory, expensive, cumbersome and impractical” – would it be less in the United States if we had less than 11 official languages?
  • Can you really have freedom of expression and protect your individual liberty if you cannot speak in the language of your choice?
  • How do you practically promote multiple languages?
  • Should there be parity of all languages in legislation? Regulations? Printed material? Education? Road signs?
  • Should we alternate which language is used when reporting decisions or publishing laws as South African has done in the past with English and Afrikaans?
  • Fundamentally, is adopting English as a national language discriminatory or racist?
  • In the United States would English be the language of the oppressor as some see English and Afrikaans or is it different for us?
  • What reasons exist for giving enhanced status to English?
  • Who would regulate and monitor the official language?
  • Would multiple lawsuits result if we select one or more national languages?
  • Is it fair to have a civil law proceeding in a language that is not the mother tongue of either of the parties?
  • Will judges, practitioners (and thus law professors) need to be proficient in multiple languages?
  • What effective will decisions have on the world’s jurisprudence if they are not translated into English (would an opinion written only in isiZulu have any impact? Spanish?)
  • Whose mother tongue should be used? The judge’s? The litigants’? the attorney’s?
  • Even if multiple languages exist for other purposes is there any justification to only having one language for legal proceedings?
 

These are just some issues that need further analysis before deciding whether to have an official language(s).