Start Writing Already
“Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad, but it’s the only way you can do anything really good.”1
When The Judge Advocate General (TJAG) of the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General’s Corps (JAGC) encourages you to write2—and says it more than once or twice—we should all be thinking about how to get on board with that directive. If you are still struggling with identifying a gerund,3 if you find yourself using your pen to tap out morse code SOS signals on your blank pad of paper when embarking on writing, and if you view writing and publishing articles for “those other people,” then this article is for you. You must change your mindset about writing, and view it as the most efficient process to help members in your group understand something you have already learned, to effect changes in the law and policy, and to share interesting things you know. Now, changing your attitude about writing—if you believe this is not something for you—is no easy feat: you must take a few small steps in adjusting how you feel about writing. I am here to tell you writing is fun and one of the most worthwhile things you can do as a professional in your community of practice. Here are the smaller steps to take to accomplish your goal of writing and sharing that product with fellow JAGC members.
1. Identify a Topic
Motivation to write stems from an idea, perhaps a particular issue you encountered (a) that you didn’t know how to deal with; (b) when you learned about the laws/regulations/policies, you were dissatisfied with the rules regarding that issue; or (c) that you had never seen in practice before. These are the three most common ways in which scholars in a professional field publish their writing:
- This is how to do [BLANK]—these include the instructive articles common in The Army Lawyer, information papers saved in various repositories on JAGCNet or MilSuite, or less scholarly (more practice-oriented) publications like Operational Law Quarterly or even After-Action Reports.
- This should change—these writings include big ideas for changes in the law or policy that the Military Law Review usually publishes; those articles usually begin by describing the state of the law (or regulation / policy) as it is now, the problem with that, and then the author’s proposal to improve the law (usually solving the problem if that change is implemented). Because you are not simply outlining how to do something you just recently did (as in the first type of publication), this type of academic writing is usually more time-consuming and research-heavy than your primer on, for example, how to prosecute DUIs.
And the last type of writing commonly seen is:
- Isn’t this interesting?—this type of article can be historical pieces (think Mr. Fred Borch’s terrific “Lore of the Corps” articles in The Army Lawyer) or book reviews; frequently, this third category ends up being a combination of how to do something and a description of something pretty cool.
As a last resort, if nothing you have done lately has grabbed your attention enough to write about, request a scholarly paper topic list from the Director of the Professional Communications Program or from the Associate Dean for Students, The Judge Advocate General’s Legal Center and School. Either of those officers will likely be willing to share that list with you so you can start brainstorming about what to write about. Once you have identified a topic, it will be time to get started with the actual writing—or rather, the outlining.
2. Outline and Fill in—Voila
For those of you lucky enough to have been taught Criminal Law by LTC Megan Wakefield between 2011 and 2014, you may be familiar with her practical approach to getting work done. She would tell those students whom she was advising as they embarked on their academic papers for the Graduate Course the following genius advice: make an outline of what you will write about; research and work exclusively on that outline, making it as robust as possible; then fill it in with a few sentences under the headers/subheaders—now you have got the first draft of your paper. Every student who followed this advice—no matter the writing experience or skill level—aced the writing requirement in attaining an LL.M. Your initial small goal (after choosing a topic) is to be excited about that topic (even just lukewarm-excited); research it and fill in your outline as you tab sources and start to synthesize ideas, getting deep into parenthetical Roman numerals as your outline gets more and more detailed. If you do this, you can easily beef up the paragraphs by adding a couple sentences and filling in some transition sentences here and there to get close to a final product, ready for editing.
3. Make Writing a Team Sport
You need not go this alone; you can co-author an article to publish. Find someone whose weaknesses are your strengths and vice versa for the best results. Because we rarely work alone in our JAGC practice of law and leadership, you will usually have your pick of co-authors to choose from right on the same installation as you, especially if you are writing about a recent experience, a lesson you just learned, or an event that just happened on your post. Also, most of us are spurred into action when we lag behind or fail to do something we have promised to do; having a partner keeps you accountable. It has the added benefit of broadening your perspective in whatever it is you write and publish. And if you are lucky, the co-author you hitch your star to/settle for might have a talent for editing—this makes fine-tuning and polishing your final draft a breeze, thus becoming an easy selection for a journal editor to publish.
4. Locate an Editor
Similar to finding a co-author, you may actually just need an editor to help you along. This person can share the by-line or not, but here is how you zero in on an editor: identify the person you see cringing when someone says “between you and I”4 or use the phrase “I could care less” and then scan the crowd to locate the person clearly trying to decide if correcting you5 in front of all these people is in poor form—and appearing to struggle with this decision. Lining up a colleague or friend as an editor is important because your ideas could be fantastic, but if they are buried in terrible writing and poor grammar, those ideas may be too hidden for a publication’s decision-maker to want to take on the task of publishing your writing. It can be time-consuming fixing up someone’s writing so the brilliant ideas can shine through. My friends and colleagues know—despite my exasperated-sounding tone in the previous few footnotes (that truly is for entertaining you, my reader)—I am not judgey6 about anyone’s poor grammar and weak writing skills; I firmly believe it has everything to do with whether or not your elementary school teacher felt like teaching you grammar and instilling a love of writing in young you. If you do not get it at that point in your life, you will always feel vaguely behind everyone on grammar knowledge and writing, like there is a secret language you will just never master. It is not true: you can become a grammarian, which helps you develop your writing skills. Sign up for writing classes, get the Grammar Girl Hot and Dirty Tips,7 buy the excellent workbook Bluebook of Grammar and Punctuation8—spend your Friday nights doing those worksheets to attain expertise (and finally know exactly what a gerund is). Become your own editor, in other words. If you can not be your own editor, though, find one who reacts to poor grammar like nails on a chalkboard; or you can always use me. I like to use my (grammar) power for good.
5. Have a Writing Mentor
Different from a co-author, different from an editor you frequently call on to proof your work—this person is someone whose writing you admire. Figuring out who your writing mentor is requires you to do quite a bit of reading9 to figure out whom you should pick. When you read and enjoy an article in one of our JAGC publications or online in one of our repositories, take a moment to tell the author you appreciated the article. You may just want to keep authors as writing heroes whom10 you admire from afar, but I am telling you: not many people contact authors to tell them they enjoyed their published piece. Writing is an entirely thankless job, in fact. Contact an author you would like to write like, give him or her a compliment, and—waiting a gracious amount of time—then send the author all your articles for feedback. Kidding on the last part—but do ask if you can send the author/writing mentor a pretty-much-final draft of whatever you are writing and ask for tips or input. This way, you would not be burdening the author, but you still get valuable advice from someone you consider a mentor. Once again, just as in the case where you cannot find an editor, I will be your writing friend if you need one. Not a writing mentor; reserve that spot for a true academic who writes well, publishes frequently, and has genius thoughts to share with you: I have none of that to share with you, but I will give you what I have and we will struggle through the writing process together.
If you would like to write and publish, but you have not learned how to do anything in your JAGC career, you have not encountered obstacles in the law to helping your client achieve a goal, or you have not seen anything interesting, then you have bigger problems than not writing and publishing articles. My point is, if you are in the JAGC, you have experiences and ideas to share. I believe TJAG’s point is, do it by writing about them (and publishing) for the benefit of our military legal community. TAL
1. William Faulkner, https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/177078-get-it-down-take-chances-it-may-be-bad-but.
2. Brigadier General Charles N. Pede, Communication Is the Key—Tips for the Judge Advocate, Staff Officer, and Leader, Army Law., June 2016, 6-7.
3. http://www.chompchomp.com/terms/gerund.htm. This is basically a party trick—learn one difficult grammatical term, explain it whenever you are in large crowds, and watch your reputation as grammarian extraordinaire take off as part of your JAG Corps “third file,” in a positive way.
4. Never correct. Always wrong. It will always be “between you and me” because “between” calls for an object (me), not a subject (I). I cannot emphasize this enough: nothing is ever between “I” and something else. https://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/between-you-and-me.
5. The phrase is “I could NOT care less.” Stating you could care less about something says nothing at all to the listener (except that you do not love the English language): it means you are somewhere on the care spectrum, not specifying exactly where. But if you say you could not care less about something, that is saying you are at the bottom of the care spectrum: there are zero things you care less about than [whatever it is you are talking about]. It is truly insulting, as opposed to saying you could care less. Why are you saying you could care less? Ho hum. Just go ahead and care less about it until you get to the point where you could NOT care less. Then you’ll be communicating what you thought you were communicating. https://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/could-care-less-versus-couldnt-care-less http://www.dictionary.com/e/could-care-less/.
6. Not a word; you are correct. You’re already becoming a promising Grammar King/Queen.
7. Grammar Girl. https://www.quickanddirtytips.com/grammar-girl.
8. Jane Straus, The Bluebook of Grammar and Punctuation (2011). For the book’s helpful, interactive website to brush up on grammar rules, see https://www.grammarbook.com/.
9. Stephen King has said, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or tools) to write. Simple as that.” https://www.inc.com/glenn-leibowitz/50-quotes-from-famous-authors-that-will-inspire-yo.html.
10. You might have noticed, I have used “whom” a few times in this article. If you want to master its use, ensure you can insert “him” for “whom.” http://theoatmeal.com/comics/who_vs_whom.