Struggling with that Lengthy Writing Assignment? 7 Practical Strategies to Help You Get It Done!

Legal Research/WritingPlease welcome back Jennifer Warren, attorney and Academic Achievement Coordinator at Oklahoma City University School of Law. She’s talking about how to survive a legal writing assignment you may be struggling with (or just to offer some encouragement).

I have a love/hate relationship with writing. While it’s extremely satisfying to finish a writing assignment, the process of getting to that point can be a real struggle. Most law students seem to feel similarly about the legal writing assignments and research papers assigned in law school. These assignments tend to be time consuming, complex, and require a significant amount of concerted effort (unlike, say, passively highlighting your case book). On top of that, law school writing assignments aren’t even necessarily that interesting. But as frustrating as these assignments may be, they’re actually a fairly realistic preview of what you’ll likely be doing as a lawyer: researching, writing, and writing some more. Whether it’s drafting a brief, a contract, or even just a memo, nearly every practicing lawyer has to write on a regular basis. So it’s helpful – no, necessary – that you develop some strategies to manage lengthy writing assignments and avoid procrastinating. Below are a few techniques I’ve relied on to help me complete difficult projects and that may help you manage your own lengthy assignments.

1. Don’t Skimp on the Research

If you feel like you’re flailing or meandering as you write, you may not know the subject matter of your paper as well you need to know it. If you clearly identify your objective, put some thought into what you need to convey, and thoroughly research the subject beforehand, it will be easier to draft your paper. Don’t underestimate the utility of good research and preparation.

2. Write at a consistent Time

This is a technique that is especially helpful if you have an ongoing project or an assignment with a deadline that’s a few months off, like a law review article. Schedule a consistent time to sit down and write. Think about when you’ll be the most productive and devote a couple of hours each day or each week to working on the project. As you get in the habit of writing at the same time each day or week, you may find it gets easier to focus and make progress.

3. Use Reverse Planning

Reverse planning is a strategy designed to help you avoid procrastinating on long term assignments, and can be particularly helpful on lengthy papers that involve multiple drafts. Reverse planning involves working backwards from your due date to schedule intermediate deadlines for the various steps to your project, such as completing research, creating an outline, writing a first draft, etc. In addition to scheduling deadlines, you may also find it helpful to schedule start dates. Think about when you’ll need to start researching or start drafting and put that date in your planner.

4. Try making a Progressive Outline

If you’re having writer’s block or just can’t seem to bring yourself to sit down and start writing, the progressive outline approach may be helpful for you. A progressive outline starts with a bare bones outline consisting only of main headings and section titles. With each subsequent draft of your outline, you gradually add more and more information until you eventually starting to compose complete sentences in your outline. Creating an outline, rather than forcing yourself to create coherent sentences and paragraphs on your first draft, can take the pressure off of writing and make it easier to get started.

5. Go back to Handwriting

Whenever I am really struggling with a writing assignment, I step away from my keyboard and start handwriting. When you’re handwriting, there’s not temptation to fix spelling mistakes or make formatting corrections, and there’s no tiny flashing cursor seemingly mocking you as you stare at a blank page. Handwriting can sometimes allow you to think more freely and creatively, so don’t hesitate to pick up a pen and legal pad when it comes to writing a brief or paper. The same goes for editing – catching mistakes and making revisions is much easier when you’re working with a pen and paper as opposed to reading something on the screen.

6. When all else Fails, just get Something Down

Ernest Hemingway famously said “the only kind of writing is rewriting.” Your first attempt doesn’t need to be perfect, or even close to perfect. Editing and rewriting is often much easier than producing a first draft, so just get something down – anything – and clean it up afterwards.

7. Move your Deadline one Day Early

It’s never a good idea to wait until the last minute to finish anything, and this is especially true for important writing assignments. Working under tight time constraints can hinder you from producing your best work and you never know when an unforeseen emergency will prevent you from using that last day to finish your assignment. Whether it’s a filing deadline in law practice or a due date on a law school paper, get in the habit of assuming it needs to be totally finished at least one day early.

Some writing assignments may be easier for you to complete and some may be more challenging. Each assignment will be different, and you’ll likely need to use different strategies for different tasks. If you’re feeling particularly frustrated or intimidated by your legal writing assignments, don’t worry too much – it does start to come more naturally with more practice, although it’s never less satisfying to be finished!

For more helpful advice, check out these articles:


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About Jennifer Warren

Jennifer received her B.A. in Politics cum laude from New York University and her J.D. with highest distinction from the University of Oklahoma College of Law. She has several years of experience in the areas of juvenile law and civil litigation and is the Academic Achievement Coordinator at Oklahoma City University School of Law.

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