Maximizing Potential of Bylined Articles Before Writing

Article writing is an important business development tool. But to obtain the most value from an investment of time and money in writing bylined articles, lawyers should take a number of steps before the writing actually begins.

Hone the Idea

A lawyer/author should carefully define the idea for the article. The topic should be something that the lawyer is interested in and that has marketing value to the lawyer. It should be current and fresh, with recent developments that can be discussed and analyzed.

A topic for an article for a business or trade publication should not be too broad, because that will make it difficult to deliver much of value to the reader. For example, an article generally should not cover all employment law decisions for a fixed period of time. Instead, it would be better to focus the piece more narrowly, such as by examining the implications of discrete decisions by federal appellate courts under the Americans with Disability Act.

It also is important for a lawyer/author to discover whether other articles have been written by other lawyers about the proposed topic. A librarian or a paralegal can determine this relatively easily through a variety of computer-aided searches. This is not to say that a lawyer/author cannot write about something if a law review has covered it, or if a publication based in another state has written about it or a related subject. Rather, the lawyer/author should be aware of what else has been written on the matter and should endeavor to write something new, different, or more current.

Find a Home

The greatest topic in the world will not be of much use unless the article that the lawyer/author writes is published in an appropriate publication within an appropriate time frame. The best way to ensure that is to line up an editor in advance of the writing. In other words, a lawyer/author should "sell" the idea to an editor before putting any significant effort into the article.

Finding a home for an article in advance avoids the problem of having a well-written article that no editor wants to run. It permits the lawyer/author to mold the article to fit the intended publication from a style and format point of view. Most importantly, by having a discussion with an editor in advance and by knowing the publication for which the article is targeted, the lawyer knows who will be reading the article and can determine what should be emphasized and how it should be written.

It is important to recognize that editors typically will not formally "commit" to publishing an article on the basis of a short proposal or telephone conference about the article. An editor only will actually agree to publish a piece after receiving it (by the established deadline), reviewing it, and ensuring that it is of high quality and meets all of the publication's requirements. However, assuming that the article is submitted as discussed in advance with the editor, it would be very unusual for it to be rejected.

Review the Guidelines

Most editors prepare editorial guidelines for their publications that tell authors what they are looking for. A lawyer/author who has contacted an editor who has expressed interest in seeing a proposed article should request guidelines from the editor. These guidelines are like the rules of procedure for article writers and should be closely followed. Well-written editorial guidelines cover all of the issues that an author will face during the writing process. For instance, they will explain a bit about the publication (including its audience) and tell authors how long articles should be.

They also will state, among other things, where citations should be placed (in the text, as footnotes, or as endnotes); whether previously published articles are acceptable (typically not); whether a lawyer/author may discuss a transaction or matter in which the lawyer/author has been involved (possibly yes, but if so, only with disclosure of that fact in advance to the editor); the publication's copyright policy (author either retains rights or assigns copyright); the information that the lawyer/author may include in a "bio" (such as firm affiliation, location, and e-mail address) and the length of the bio; the method to submit articles (hard copy, disk, or e-mail; Word or WordPerfect); whether articles may be written from a first person perspective or whether a more neutral third person approach should be used; whether an article may be in an outline format or must appear as continuous prose with full sentences; whether authors may insert internal headings and subheadings or whether that is a job performed by the editor or layout artist; the appropriate way to refer to individuals (whether the first reference to persons should include full names; whether the lawyer or editor must verify correct spelling and titles); and whether the editor or an assistant should be contacted with questions.

Gather Background Materials

Before beginning to write an article, an author should have access to all court decisions, briefs, memoranda of law, statutes, regulations, and other background materials that discuss the issue or otherwise can provide information to be included in the article. Where other articles have discussed the topic, they should be collected as well.

Having this material in advance makes it easier to begin the writing process, and eliminates one excuse for not getting it done. Of course, it is possible that during the writing process some additional research will need to be performed, but when a topic is well thought out, that generally should occur only rarely.

Plan to Meet the Deadline

One problem with finding a home for an article before it is written is that if it is not written, the lawyer/author jeopardizes his or her relationship with the editor (and the firm's relationship with the editor) by placing the editor in a difficult position: the editor has penciled in the lawyer's contribution for a certain issue; if it does not arrive on time, the editor may be caught short for that issue.

This does not mean that the lawyer/author should write the article first and then speak with an editor about it, for all the reasons mentioned above. Instead, it means that the lawyer should incorporate this commitment into his or her schedule or plan to obtain appropriate assistance to prepare the article. Although the lawyer's practice is obviously more important and client deadlines have to come first, lawyers must figure out how to get their articles written once they have committed to themselves to use bylined articles as a marketing tool and, especially, once they have committed to an editor or publication for a particular article.

This article originally appeared in the New York Law Journal (October 24, 2000), Copyright 2000, Steven A. Meyerowitz, reprinted with permission of Mr. Meyerowitz.