We've all seen them -- block quotes from other sources. This writing technique has become a simple and way-too-easy method of adding sources and content -- to everything from a blog post to an appellate brief. Content editors provide tools for indentation of your block quote, which can then be linked back to the original source. I would say that this crutch has become overused, but the word 'become' would be out-of-place. Twenty-two years ago, when reading and judging "write-on essays" for Texas Law Review, I found that at least a handful of my contemporaries would scarcely connect their series of block quotes with text, barely sufficient to connect their reasoning in some logical manner. These law students were among the best -- law students, after all, at the University of Texas. But their method of presentation became both a distraction and a reminder that their reasoning was borrowed.
The hallowed halls of UT Law placed great emphasis on original thought. I spent a great deal of my third year editing articles by and about Prof. Philip Bobbitt, whose writings represent some of the most enduring in generations of law professors. But some of his critics argued that Prof. Bobbitt's thoughts were not original. Jack M. Balkin & Sanford V. Levinson, Constitutional Grammar, 72 Tex. L. Rev. 1771 (1994) was the academic equivalent of insulting a person's heritage on the playground. See Philip C. Bobbitt, Reflections Inspired by My Critics, 72 Tex. L. Rev. 1869 (1994).
With this emphasis on original thought, it became even more important to avoid the common practice of linking together a series of block quotes from other sources.
But what are the options for the legal writer -- who is so dependent upon sources and attribution, and whose original thoughts may well be critique of or commentary on other thoughts?
More after the break....
The best approach I found during my time at UT Law was that employed by Profs. Charles Alan Wright and Arthur Miller, and their co-authors, in their multi-volume treatise, Federal Practice and Procedure. Prof. Wright was known to employ lengthy quotes from rules or court decisions within the text of his paragraphs, without the use of block quotes. These in-line quotes defied the rules of form, which would require lengthy quotes to appear as block quotes. But Prof. Wright was deemed to hold the authority to establish his own rules of form for his writings. (His citation form, while likely based on standards adopted in some manner at some point, typically varied significantly from the Blue Book and other standard forms.)
Prof. Wright's approach was more than a stylistic solution to the clumsy appearance of strung-together block quotes. When Prof. Wright found solid reasoning in court decisions, he showed appreciation for it by weaving it into his commentary on federal procedure. He was selective and efficient in choosing his quotes from great judicial writers. Prof. Wright's in-line quotations were neither clumsy nor cumbersome.
When stacking together block quotes in an essay, brief, or blog post, the writer seeking convenience will leave in impertinent text and detail. In fact, many block quotes contain so much immaterial information and even poor writing that some readers skip block quotes altogether. Try reading a popular piece containing block quotes. Can you follow the article if you skip the block quotes?
Among many other things, Prof. Terri LeClercq taught us (students in her writing and editing course) that a reader should be able to follow your writing by reading nothing more than the first sentence of each paragraph. This was the pyramid structure of writing -- lead each paragraph with your main idea, then support the main idea with each subsequent sentence.
Perhaps this explains why block quotes don't work -- they can be skipped, but if the reader thereby misses the big idea of your writing, then what good have they done?