Starting with Academic Writing? Here’s Some Advice and an Update on Journal of Indian Law and Society’s New Initiatives

If someone had asked me five years back to write about my experience of being part of the editorial board of one of the prominent law journals of the country, I would have considered it as a joke. For someone who published their first academic writing in their fourth year, being part of academia sounds dreamy to me. Therefore, while I discuss about my time at the Journal of Indian Law and Society, and especially the JILS blog; my primary focus will be on why I feel anyone can write a research paper.

In my first year of college, when I wrote my projects, I realised that despite having decent research skills and an opinion about topics, I was not able to express it in my academic writing. In my second year, when I tried writing a paper on a random economics topic, I lost my interest after a point. In my third year, I again tried to write a blog on a corporate law-related topic but failed to convert it into a paper. This made me realise that maybe I was writing blogs/papers on themes that necessarily were not within my area of interest.

From my fourth year onwards, after writing my projects and reading a bit on some subjects taught by some amazing Professors, I developed an interest in two broad themes: 1) Human Rights, and 2) Reforms in Legal Education. These two topics have been close to my heart as I genuinely enjoy writing on subject matters related to these topics and since then I have published a few pieces in this area.

Unfortunately, in law school, we are taught that success has a uniform definition and that is directly linked to how well you do moots, debates, write papers, etc. And in order to fulfill this definition of success, people force themselves to write papers just for the sake of getting a publication. For people who have published papers, they now know that getting a publication is not difficult; rather getting a good publication in a reputed journal is difficult.

As a young researcher, it is important to know that there is no clear definition of a ‘phenomenal’ paper. Some journals might like the way you have researched a particular topic; while for others, it might have structural problems leading to its rejection. The key is to try to read more and more pieces if you really like academic writing. Instead of focussing merely on publication, try to have your piece cover an unexplored area or contribute to existing literature. I have always tried to write on topics where I felt, the jurisprudence was largely unexplored. Reading more pieces helps to understand the language, structuring, and how to limit our research to specific research questions.

When I say these, please remember that it comes from a person who was not comfortable in spoken as well as written English in first year. My opinions on writing that I present above were ingrained into me primarily when I joined the Journal of Indian Law and Society (JILS) as an Editor. JILS used to be a reputed journal for a long time and held recognition for being cited in the historic Supreme Court judgment, Navtej Singh Johar v. Union of India. However, due to some administrative and logistics constraints, JILS was lagging behind other journals and new volumes were not being published.

This is when our faculty advisor, Vijay Kishore Tiwari gave us the autonomy to do whatever was possible to get back on track and gain the glory which we once held. We had an amazing team during my time at the board and this included Sarath Mathew (who is currently a student at Cambridge University and a member of their law journal). We worked cohesively as a team, working to complement each other’s weaknesses and augment our strengths.

One idea that I am especially proud of was that of including first-year members as part of our editorial board. This inclusion was not nominal and was not restricted to just checking footnotes. First-year members reviewed blog pieces and took on research assistantships with prominent authors. We as a board believed that first-year members could be as good as a final year member as far as legal academic writing was concerned. During my tenure, we saw first years who were naturally good at writing and also those who developed a habit of reading and trying to see through the piece and its arguments during the course of the year.

I was also assigned with heading the JILS Blog wherein we made a mandatory policy to try writing at least one blog per month by the team. I firmly believe that the best way to learn academic writing is to write as much as you can and get it reviewed. The comments and reviewing of pieces from different perspectives always help in refining one’s approach.

We took two unique initiatives which became a small attempt to trying to decolonise legal education as our Faculty Advisor, Vijay Sir would say

  1. Legal Blogs in Vernacular Languages: In reference to the International Mother Language Day (21st Feb, 2020) which is celebrated to promote awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity and to promote multilingualism, JILS blog team planned a one of its kind initiative where we published blogs in Hindi, Bengali, Gujarati, Tamil, and Malayalam. The idea behind this blog series is to bring those authors who have great command on law, but due to inaccessibility towards fluent written English, they cannot write blogs. Additionally, this marks a step that law blogs can open up their submissions for vernacular pieces in long run. I sincerely hope that seeing this initiative other law blogs will also try to start a column for vernacular submissions. It is important to highlight the role of my Associate editor Yathansh Joshi, who handled the operations of this initiative. Yathansh is now heading the JILS Blog team and the board has recently announced the second edition of Vernacular Blogs Initiative and the readers who want to try academic writing in their language can try writing for JILS.
  2. Reforms in Legal Education: We dedicated Volume 10 of JILS to Prof (Dr.) NR Madhava Menon, the founder-Vice Chancellor of WBNUJS, and modern Indian legal education. An institution builder par excellence, his body of work and impact on lawyers across India shines on who believed that law schools should produce social engineers. We believed that legal education was facing some key issues which led us to this volume and an interview series with people who have worked on reforms in legal education.

As part of Volume 10 and the interview series, we focussed on examination patterns of visually impaired students, improvement in academia in non-NLUs, finding lessons out of the classroom, Mobile clinics, gender stigmas, and disability, amongst other topics.

We also received a few significant rewards for all the hard work our team put in. A piece from our Volume 9 was made a mandatory reading at Harvard Law School for the course, “Freedom of Speech Frontiers” by Dr. Martha Minow, who has been the Ex-Dean of Harvard Law. Additionally, JILS Blog became a trustworthy resource for analysing existing issues going on in the country and was cited by prominent scholars like Upendra Baxi.

JILS Blog shifted to a blind peer-reviewed blog to ensure quality and transparent process and received more than 300 submissions in the last year. The continuation of quality coupled up with various initiatives such as vernacular initiatives made us Top 10 legal blogs of the country amongst all prominent blogs and websites.

All these experiences continue to amaze me that someone like me who did not even believe that he could write a paper could reach here. This was only possible because I did not force myself into writing for topics I didn’t like. This piece was not me preaching to anyone how to write a paper as the approach of everyone is different rather having a belief that constantly trying to get to a better version of yourself eventually helps.

(This article has been written by Rohit Sharma, a graduate of NUJS, Kolkata.)

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