April 18, 2007
Of Jewish Guilt and an Open Letter to Law Review Editors Expressing Gratitude and Caution
I am just finishing up the editing process on an article that I placed in a law review and, as always, the students are sincere and hard-working and thoughtful. Moreover, to have taken my piece, they must have overcome some substantial hurdles, not the least of which is the tenuous link between most of my thinking and the physical universe (Cue: David Bowie's Space Oddity - "this is Ground Control to Major Tom.")
I have spoken much of self-referential loops in the past few weeks, and have come to the tentative conclusion that my ability to feel guilty is in fact a self-referential and never-ending loop. One of the good-faith edits changed the meaning of a paragraph quite dramatically, and I had what seemed to me like a moderate conniption. Then I felt terrible because I had had a conniption. Consistent with his kind and gentle wisdom, my classmate Douglas Baird once told me that he thinks of the interaction with student editors as an opportunity to teach, and that takes the edge off the tendency toward being a prima donna. I always liked that.
Nevertheless, in the throes of working my way out of my psychological swirl, I composed the following open letter to law review editors, and it seems to have worked for me better than swilling down a Valium or a Xanax.
Dear Law Review Editor:
Thank you again for all of your work in editing my submission to your law review. Before reviewing edits of my articles, I always invoke the traditional Jewish Yom Kippur prayer that says to God "we are not so arrogant or stiff-necked as to say before You: 'We are righteous and have not sinned.'" This puts me in the frame of mind appropriate to take the implicit and well-meaning criticism of the few people who will ever read this piece, much less engage with it, as you must, to have edited it so closely.
At this point in the article's life, it is to me as though someone else wrote it; my review of the edits is, in many ways, as cold as yours of the submitted draft. Indeed, the way I review the edited draft is to do a cold read of your version. I only go back to my last draft if something seems amiss, either in form or substance. So, for all I know, I have accepted most of your edits.
But where something seems amiss, I do go back and check the last version I sent to you. Invariably there has been some change from my draft that either impacted the meaning or made a stylistic change that I didn’t like at all. I have pointed out a number of these examples. I am certainly willing to concede that my original point may not have been clear, and, accordingly, I am taking your edit as a sign that I need to clarify.
Some of your changes appear to be wholly stylistic. A number of these suggest some discomfort with my willingness to use a more provocative or idiomatic turn of phrase. It's interesting, because I have had pieces edited by professional editors in peer-reviewed journals, and they are invariably more tolerant of my unwillingness to toe the line than student editors. Don’t be sucked in by false solemnity or seriousness in legal writing. I have been writing in litigation, corporate law, and non-legal business arenas for almost thirty years in every kind of environment – law firm, corporation, and academy – and I’m sure one secret to my longevity is that the writing has life. Read some of Judge Posner’s work to see how seriousness does not have to be turgid.
Once again, it was an honor to have my piece selected by your review, and I have thoroughly enjoyed working with you. I look forward to seeing the piece in the galley proofs.
* Thanks to Slate.com for the drawing.
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There is no need to be nasty or condescending when dealing with student editors, but there is no reason to be apologetic either. Jeff, a letter such as yours, if passed on from generation to generation of students, will only encourage the sort of editing that gave you a conniption in the first place. If your goal is to educate the editors, I think you will teach them more by being firm. They already know that you are older and more experienced than they are, yet they chose to ignore that.
On another note: does anyone under the age of 50 (or maybe 40) use the word conniption?
Posted by: Steve Lubet | Apr 18, 2007 7:42:04 AM
Word out to Lipshaw editors: "Take your protein pills and put your helmet on!"
Seriously, my preferred music for edit mode is "Comfortably Numb."
I think that the law reviews are starting to want more felicitous writing, but they are steering such contributions toward the "essay" section or "responses" to articles. I do recall my dismay when someone tried to shift my first piece from the articles to the essay section, and I responded "wait, I have 250 footnotes!"
But perhaps eventually the essay will be the badge of honor. Montaigne, don't fail me now!
Posted by: Frank | Apr 18, 2007 10:45:35 AM
Well, if anything, I just proved I'm a politician, because Steve thinks I'm a wimp, and Frank thinks I'm hell on wheels.
Posted by: Jeff Lipshaw | Apr 18, 2007 11:18:22 AM
"Of Jewish Guilt and an Open Letter to Law Review Editors Expressing Gratitude and Caution"
Of...an open letter?
Are the law review editors expressing gratitude and caution? or your letter? Is your modifier dangling?
Is this guilt actually Jewish? or merely Jewish-related? Perhaps you mean Jewishesque? In any event, do we want to use an ethnic and/or religious group in our title?
Posted by: Childress | Apr 18, 2007 1:20:32 PM
What gets me is the last-minute edit that is not sent to the author. One of "my" articles is still, to this day, by Stephen Alan Childress. I guess the LME figured I misspelled it as Steven on the five prior edits and of course my original. Glad he caught that before I embarrassed myself.
Posted by: Childress | Apr 18, 2007 1:23:00 PM
Ready for more student-editor horror stories? I have an article in which the key word in the title was mis-spelled on the journal's cover, and also on the offprints (long before SSRN). The word was spelled correctly on the title page of the article itself. Who would have thought to proofread the cover?
Posted by: steve lubet | Apr 18, 2007 1:48:34 PM
Let's just hope that Steve Lubet's title did not have the word "public" in it.
I recently got an edit back that was quite good except the editor just loved commas. The more, the, better. At one point I just had to write an email that said
Call me, Ishmael.
Posted by: Childress | Apr 18, 2007 2:04:38 PM
Alan, I made it my practice many years ago never to discuss the dangling of anything anywhere by anyone.
Posted by: Jeff Lipshaw | Apr 18, 2007 2:29:15 PM