Legal Blogging: A Beginner's Guide
I wrote a piece about pitching which you can read here. Now I’m tackling the blogging itself.
Writing a piece is very individual – what you want to say, and how you want to say it has to belong to, and work for, you. But those who write regularly and those who edit agree that clarity is the most important thing. Be absolutely clear what you are trying to say.
Celeste Hicks is a freelance journalist whose book on the Trial of Hissene Habre was published last year. Her advice: “Make sure you know what story you want to tell, why it's different to what's already out there, what's the human face to the story, why should someone care?”
Of course, legal blogging doesn’t always have or even need a human face. It’s more about adding to the discourse and providing a different aspect of analysis. Just Security is good at explaining what they are looking for, stating “There are two main types of article we tend to run at Just Security: (1) crisp explanatory and analytic pieces geared toward a broad audience; and (2) deep dives that examine the nuances of a particular legal issue. As you write, please keep in mind that our audience is broader than just lawyers. It includes congressional staff, policymakers and experts, and national security journalists. A large part of Just Security’s mission is educating this broad audience of decision-makers and influencers about all of the important issues we cover. We receive regular feedback from this group of time-pressed readers that one of the things they value the most about Just Security is our ability to quickly get to the heart of, and explain, complex issues.”
Reading this, I’ve realized I should have a submissions requirement page on Justice Hub. I’ll draft one and we will add the link here. All feedback welcome!
Two other blogs I checked are less onerous about what they want. At EJIL Talk they say they want submissions which (a) are written in English of good quality, are clear, direct, to the point and well structured; (b) comply with our word limit and style guidelines below; and (c) are civil and respectful in tone throughout.
International Law Grrls says "We invite you to contribute a post to IntLawGrrls via e-mail at email@example.com. Your post, of 500-1,000 words, should discuss an important issue of international, comparative, or transnational law or policy in a substantive and meaningful way. No prior blogging experience is necessary."
I wonder though whether it makes it easier or harder - giving such a wide-open space for a putative blogger?
Iva Vukusic, Ph.D. candidate in the History Department of the University of Utrecht and a Visiting Research Fellow at the War Studies Department, King's College London, says she approaches writing like this: “I try to be clear, and concise and write in a language people understand. And I try to address something that has a reasonably broad appeal - I get a sense of topics intuitively, and I trust my gut, if I think there's a story in it, there's a story in it. It doesn't work 100% of the time, but it does most often.”
Journalist and communications expert Benjamin Dürr says for blogs he advises those setting out to write a blogpost to
Narrow an idea down (don’t overload a blog post).
Have an opinion or (one) clear point to make
Priya Pillai is an editor at Opinio Juris. She agrees in principle but says it isn’t easy in practice. “For a post, ideal guidelines are that (i) it shouldn’t be overly lengthy, and (ii) [should have] a good coverage of the issue/s with enough depth (tricky to balance both sometimes!)”
And what about getting feedback from editors – should you expect it?
Pillai says she’s “prepared to give a lot of guidance and editing - have brainstormed subject-matter of a post plus edited first version with an author, and then shared for approval with co-editors. So in short, willing to put in quite a lot for a good blog post!”
I just gave this feedback to a contributor to Justice Hub: “Thanks - it’s strong and interesting. What I’m missing somewhere is the context - they talk about government having been responsible. I think we need a few lines, maybe some links too, which explain how long, how many, what context, who perpetuated what violence. That will make what survivors say (later) more contextualised and clearer. Also you do use some academic language - maybe impossible to remove - but if when reading through you find easy clear other ways of saying some stuff, don’t hesitate to change.” The recipient said it was useful!
International criminal lawyer, Danya Chaikel says she likes getting feedback:“I appreciate being edited, as I always learn something new and everyone needs a good edit! Your questions remind me of how much I enjoy and miss writing.”
Even hardened professionals like Dürr appreciate it (sometimes): “Editorial advice and feedback is always welcome, and very necessary to learn and improve. There are exceptions though: editors who come back after submission and demand complete re-writing (clear guidance before writing would be better); editors who don’t edit and publish immediately, but come after weeks and months and want it updated or re-written.
So how to decide what you’ll write about?
Vukusic says: “I developed a sense for things that I could provide some interesting insight into… I don't improvise, I don't write about everything under the sun”. Further she advises“Find your niche and stick to it - not to say don't try anything else, not at all, but blogging, as simple as it seems, is difficult precisely because you have to be smart in short sentences with simple language. You need knowledge and confidence for it.
And I get the final word here – after all I am an editor who’ll say yes or no to your piece! I agree with most of what my colleagues have said and just add - don’t worry too much about headings and subheadings, don’t worry about providing a summary, don’t worry too much about length. Just make sure it’s really readable (no footnotes and keep the jargon to a minimum). Make sure it’s accurate because blog teams are small and they don’t have a lot of time for fact-checking. Make you are on top of the current debate and not writing what someone else has already said.
The online blogosphere needs you. So, get writing!
Janet H Anderson is the manager of JusticeHub which is about to relaunch with a new website and will be looking for contributors. She also writes for JusticeInfo. Together with Stephanie van den Berg she’s launching a new podcast shortly focusing on women in international justice. We will be featuring it on the Atlas website. Stay tuned.