GWR: A Strategy for Success

Topic Selection

Preliminary Research

Planning Document


For many students, satisfying the Graduation Writing Requirement (“GWR”) is a daunting and sometimes intimidating task.  It need not be.  An old proverb says that the longest journey begins with a single step.  That’s exactly the approach to take in satisfying your GWR.  Following are four steps that you can take to make your journey easier.

1.  Topic selection. Picking the right topic and the right angle(s) to explore is probably the most important, and often the most difficult, problem in satisfying the GWR.  A good topic should meet three criteria.  First, it should be interesting to you.  Writing a long paper is hard work, and it helps if you are interested in what you are doing.

Second, the topic and angle(s) that you select must have enough law to analyze in depth.  A GWR paper is not a newspaper report.  Nor is it history, policy (although policy may be relevant), or philosophy.  A good GWR paper, like a good law-review article, must have substantial legal analysis.  So there must be enough law out there to analyze and to fill your paper in doing so.  A “split” among the federal circuit courts of appeals often provides enough law to discuss, especially when more than two circuits have chimed in.  But many other situations also provide enough law to discuss.  Preliminary research on your topic should tell you whether it meets this criterion.

The third and final criterion for a good topic is that it not be “pre-empted” by earlier writing.  That is, no published document of reasonable quality should cover the same angle(s) of the same topic that you propose to cover.  There are two reasons for this rule.  First, writing on a topic already covered adequately in the published literature leaves no room for original thought and analysis on your part.   Second, writing on such a topic may tempt you to plagiarize others’ work.

2.  Preliminary research. In order to verify that your topic satisfies the last two criteria for a good topic, you must do preliminary legal research.  To verify satisfaction of the second criterion—enough law to analyze—you must find enough law (and enough controversy about it) to fill a paper of the required length.   To be sure that your topic is not pre-empted, you must do a search of the legal literature to see what others have already written on that topic.  Only by doing substantial preliminary research can you be sure your proposed topic meets these two requirements.

Depending on the complexity of your topic, the amount of previous writing on it, the need to seek paths not yet trodden, and the amount of time you devote to it, preliminary research may take as long as a month.  It is therefore vital to do your preliminary research as early as possible, for sometimes it will “kill” a proposed topic.  Typically, you should do your research and find a viable topic during the semester or summer before you plan to submit your paper.  Doing preliminary research early allows you to approach your chosen topic thoughtfully, with confidence, and without panic.

3.  Planning document. As the culmination of your preliminary research and topic selection, you should submit a Planning Document.  Typically this document is no longer than three or four pages.  It has three parts: (1) a narrative description of your topic and your “angle(s)” on that topic, with enough background to appreciate their legal significance (typically two or three paragraphs); (2) a preliminary outline of your paper; and (3) a list of sources you have consulted in your preliminary research and plan to use in writing the paper.  

Although many students discard or substantially revise their preliminary outlines later, thinking through an entire outline at this preliminary stage will help you focus on how much you have to say, as well as how (and in what order!) you can say it in the designated length.  As for the citation list, it can serve as the basis for drafting many of your footnotes, but only if you take the trouble at the outset to consult your citation authority (Bluebook or Maroon Book) and put all citations in proper form.

4.  Schedule. As part of your Planning Document and an essential part of your project planning, you should include a schedule of work.  At a minimum, your schedule should include: (1) a target date for completing research and thinking, (2) a hard deadline for submitting your first version, (3) a deadline (at least a week later) for receiving comments and feedback, and (4) a deadline for submitting your final version in response to the professor's comments and suggestions.

In order to avoid possible delays in graduation, the deadline for submitting your final version should be no later than two weeks before the final administrative deadline, which for spring submissions is March 30.  Ideally, you should allow at least two months after completing research to write the first version, and at least one month to respond to comments and write your final version.

Please note the term “first version.”  This is NOT a first draft, although I or other professors sometimes may loosely refer to it as such.  It is a complete and final paper, with all footnotes and all citations in proper Bluebook or Maroon Book form, proofread and polished in every respect.  The fact that you may later rewrite it substantially in response to comments should not deter you from doing as complete, thorough and polished a job on the first version as you are capable of doing.  Only through such effort can you hope to learn from the rewriting process to follow.  And only by submitting a complete and final first version can you hope to get a respectable grade.

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