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Margaret Paris: Writing a Comprehensive Paper

DEADLINES. Here are the deadlines for students writing comprehensive papers during the Fall semester, 2001. Use these deadlines unless you have made other arrangements with me. These deadlines are firm, for your own good. If you miss them, you’ll find yourself trying to finish your comprehensive paper during final exams.

Monday, September 24, 2001 — outline due

Friday, November 9, 2001 — first draft due

Monday, December 3, 2001 — final draft due

GENERAL. The faculty enacted the comprehensive writing requirement some years ago, and it is an important component of your legal education. You can find a description of the requirement in “The Holding.” Here is the pertinent part of that description:

The comprehensive writing requirement is satisfied by completion of a written work product that the supervising teacher certifies as evidencing:

extensive and thorough research;

a high understanding of the topic;

creative and original thinking;

competent use of the English language;

good organization; and

thorough editing.

In addition, it is ordinarily expected that the student write and submit to the teacher at least one working draft or extensive outline of the paper, that the draft be critiqued by the teacher, and that the student revise and reedit the paper before submitting the final version. There are no specified page requirements for the project; a highly polished, competently prepared work product meeting all of the foregoing criteria meets the requirement. (Solely for guidance, it is suggested that the work product typically should be between 20-40 double-spaced pages in length, exclusive of footnotes.)

I follow these guidelines closely when I evaluate comprehensive papers. I expect papers to be about 30 double-spaced pages in length — including footnotes, which ordinarily should be placed at the bottom of the page.

SELECTING A TOPIC. Finding a great topic is sometimes the most difficult part of the comprehensive project. It is important to write about something that excites you, and you should expect to take several weeks choosing, and then refining, your topic. Consult the following sources, among others, for ideas:


  • current events and/or news about a criminal trial or appeal;
  • reporting services that collect recent cases (such as BNA’s Criminal Law Reporter and U.S. Law Week);
  • cases pending in the United States Supreme Court (consult the ABA’s Supreme Court Preview), federal appellate courts, and state appellate and supreme courts
  • treatises (such as LaFave);
  • law review articles (a Westlaw search using the “JLR” database is particularly helpful);
  • faculty members.


Once you have a broad topic concept, refine it by researching it and determining just what it is about that topic that you want to focus on. If you are writing a paper in the traditional law review format, you must have a thesis — a proposition that you seek to advance in your paper. The thesis might be that a court made a mistake (or did the right thing) when it decided a case in a particular way, or that an entire doctrine is flawed (or brilliant), or that legislatures ought (or ought not) to enact a certain statute, or … ?? Plan to speak with me and other faculty members about your thesis as you develop it.

SELECTING A FORMAT. Most students write their comprehensive papers in traditional law review format, and you should use that format unless you get my approval to do something less traditional. If you choose to write in traditional law review format, your comprehensive paper ought to resemble a student-written law review article in tone, object, structure, and citation style. If you are writing in this format, you must read several student-written law review articles before beginning your paper. You can find such articles easily in the Oregon Law Review and other law journals. Law journals usually place student-written articles after professionally-written articles (which are often too ambitious in scope to provide good examples for your paper), and they typically designate student-written articles as Comments, Case Notes, or Notes. I recommend that you write in traditional law review format because it is easy to learn, provides you with a good writing sample for employment purposes, makes it possible for you to seek publication of your paper, and permits you to focus on a specific case (as would a “Case Note”) or analyze an entire issue (as would a “Comment”). On the other hand, the traditional law review format can be stultifying. For an amusing critique of law review culture, see Keith Aoki and Garrett Epps, Dead Lines, Break Downs & Troubling the Legal Subject or “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Meta,” 73 Or. L. Rev. 551 (1994).

Alternatives to traditional law review format include nontraditional law review formats — narratives, dialogues, etc. (for an example of a great nontraditional law review article, see Frederick Dennis Greene, The Resurrection of Gunga Din, 81 Iowa L. Rev. 1521 (1996)) — and non-law review formats such as appellate court briefs, historical analyses, and so forth. Be sure to speak with me if you choose to write in a nontraditional format. The faculty enacted the comprehensive paper requirement with a traditional law review format in mind, and while I don’t wish to discourage your creativity, I also want to make sure that your format accomplishes the objectives of the comprehensive paper requirement. What are those objectives? Read the quotation from “The Holding” that I reproduced above and let’s talk.

OUTLINE. Your outline need not be formal, but it should communicate the paper’s thesis — the proposition that you will advance — as well as the paper’s organization. You can do this in a one-page outline. Before preparing your outline, think seriously about your paper’s organizational structure. Read one or two student-written law review articles in order to become familiar with organizational structure in legal scholarship. This exercise also will familiarize you with the style and depth of scholarly research that your paper should achieve. In addition, by the time you submit your outline, you should have identified and read the major source materials that you will use, although you need not list these in the outline.

FIRST DRAFT. Submit only a complete draft — one that you have already finished and edited. I suggest that you edit the first draft at least three times before submitting it. Professor Mary Wood uses the following editing approach, which I think is particularly effective:

During the first edit, focus on the paper’s conceptual framework. Make sure that your ideas and arguments are supported logically and, where appropriate, by citations to cases, law review articles, and other sources. Since this first edit focuses on the paper’s structure, pay particular attention to your introduction, transitions, and conclusions. Provide frequent “road maps” so that your reader is aware of what proposition your paper advances and in what order the argument will proceed. Tighten up the paper’s organization and close any gaps in your argument.

The second edit focuses on writing style. Make sure that your sentences flow well, that your word choices are good, and that grammar is correct throughout. In addition, excise passive construction, lengthy quotations, and other weaknesses. Use law review articles as a guide to writing style, and consult other writing manuals if necessary (The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E.B. White, is a classic, as is Kate Turabian’s Manual For Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations). Writing manuals are available in our library, the Knight Library, and at the University Bookstore.

Use the third edit to check your citation form and catch spelling errors. Consult the Harvard Blue Book, the Chicago Manual of Style, and/or law review articles for citation form. Use your computer to do a spell check. Get out all of the bugs at this stage and turn your paper into a professional product.

FINAL DRAFT. I will give you oral and/or written feedback on your first draft, and your final draft should respond to that feedback. If your first draft was thorough and well done, you won’t have much to do at this stage. Your final draft should also reflect another edit of your own, but if the first draft was well done, this should be a light edit. The final draft is the one on which you will be graded. See below for my grading standards.

ACKNOWLEDGING YOUR SOURCES. Your paper must reflect your own research, analysis, and writing. Obviously, your analysis will be heavily based on other people’s words and ideas, and there is nothing wrong with this, so long as you use quotations marks and footnotes appropriately. Even where you are using another person’s ideas but are not quoting that person, use a footnote to acknowledge your use of that person’s ideas. The basic rule is easy: attribute generously and joyfully! There is no shame in using other people’s ideas — to the contrary, building on the ideas of others advances legal scholarship. I have learned a lot about how to attribute ideas from reading articles by our own Keith Aoki, a graceful and nationally-renowned scholar, and I suggest that you check out some of his articles. If you have any questions about how much attribution is appropriate, please come see me. In addition, you may refer to the following law review articles for help in determining the appropriateness of your use of source materials: Patsy W. Thomley, In Search of a Plagiarism Policy, 16 N. Ky. L. Rev. 501 (1989); Comment, Plagiarism in Legal Scholarship, 15 Tol. L. Rev. 15 (1983).

GRADING. In grading your paper, I will look for (1) clear and professional writing [impeccable grammar is a must]; (2) thorough and extensive research reflected in citations and/or footnotes, (3) thoughtful analysis, and (4) good organization. I give top grades (As, A-minuses, and A-pluses) only to those papers that are of publishable quality–in other words, that manifest excellence in the four categories mentioned above. Papers in the B range (Bs, B-minuses, and B-pluses) are of almost-publishable quality. They are above average in the four categories. Papers in the C to C-plus range demonstrate competence in the four categories. Papers that do not display minimal competence in the four categories will receive less than a C.

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