This is a good thread and someone should take this and make an article about it for the main TLS page.
Here are my thoughts after grading write-ons. They cover a lot of the same ground already mentioned, but they're worth stressing.
. I was surprised by how many of the submissions I graded had piss poor organization. We're talking English 101/102 stuff. Write an introduction paragraph that sets up a thesis statement that comes in either the first or second paragraph. Then give me a roadmap so I know what to expect for the rest of the essay and stick to it. Use headings and make those headings persuasive or at least reflective of the argument you're going to make in a given section (and every sub-section should be argumentative. This is an article, not a brief, don't do a facts section).
The Individual Mandate Is a Constitutional Exercise of the Power to Regulate Interstate Commerce.
NOT: Commerce Clause Issues
Also, use topic sentences, then make sure the topic sentence is paid off in that paragraph.
This may seem like simple, undergrad stuff, but I was stunned by how badly people did with this. Even if a Journal's rubric doesn't award a lot of points to organization, it may be hard to find other points (i.e. for legal analysis or quality of argument), if we can't find that stuff due to shitty organization.
2. Grammar, Usage, and Spelling
. These should be perfect. I'm pretty forgiving for bluebooking since first-year legal writing tends to teach how to bluebook as a practitioner, not for a journal. However, when I see bad spelling, punctuation, or word usage, my opinion of the essay plummets
. It doesn't even reflect stupidity, just plain laziness. When I see you screwed something up like this, it says to me you either: (1) couldn't be bothered to proofread; (2) managed your time so poorly you didn't have time to proofread. Given that the whole point of law review is to finely review really bad writing with a pedantic level of detail, demonstrating an inability to turn in technically sound writing is a death knell where I'm concerned.
Note: I suppose the quality of your analysis should be good and I know Journals stress that, but I don't think many of the actual graders care too much about it. As a Managing Editor, I don't give a shit about your eventual note/comment. But I'm very concerned with making sure I don't have to double check your editing work to make sure it's right and we're advancing the article the way we should.
3. Keep It Simple, Stupid
. I lose patience really quickly when I'm reading a submission that has large, unwieldy sentence constructions, too much passive voice, and where the author went to town with their thesaurus. As a general rule, the quicker I get through your paper at a high level of comprehension, the more I'm going to like it. You're not going to impress anyone with overly ornate prose or vocabulary. Write for someone who has to read 150 pages of essays just like yours.
4. Don't Equivocate
. While I'm not super concerned with the quality of your argument (and in that I admit I may be in the minority of graders, but I doubt it), I get annoyed when the essay is chickenshit about taking a side. If you're arguing that Party A is liable for tort B, say it. Don't tiptoe around it saying stuff like, "Defendant's conduct seems to violate the Bird Law Act of 1933." Make sure when you're discussing/explaining authority, you're doing it in a way that supports your position. Don't just summarize authority. When you're drafting, keep in mind that it's disastrous for your submission if the grader forgets what side you're taking.