October 14, 2008
On Writing Backwards
Posted by Gordon Smith

A young legal scholar just sent me the following question via email: "I'd love to hear at some point how you organize data as your researching (how you take notes, etc?)  I'm having a hard time dealing with my mountains of articles and books."

This is my response: "This is a tough issue for me. I have never been great at organizing mountains of research because I tend to write papers 'backwards.' Maybe this is because I am left handed, but I usually start writing before have done the research. (True confessions.) This is the method Richard Epstein taught me while I was at Chicago. I sketch out my thoughts on a subject, then use the research to refine or develop those thoughts. It sounds terribly inefficient, but it prevents me from being overly influenced by what others have written. Anyway, using this method means that most of my notes are put right into the draft of the paper, which I edit mercilessly as I get closer to publication."

Hmm ... that does not seem at all responsive to the initial question. Any thoughts on note software or other methods?

UPDATE: I should add that backwards writing doesn't work on empirical pieces ... at least for me. But most of my work is not empirical. And it's not as if I am starting with a completely blank slate on any project, since I have read lots of cases and scholarship before I begin. As a result, the first draft is a sketch of an argument in its starkest form, and that sketch gets more nuanced through subsequent drafts. In some instances, the initial argument becomes implausible and the whole piece changes or is abandoned. That's one of the hazards of writing backwards.


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