• Nadine Rinderknecht

How to write an innovative paper

Aktualisiert: 24. Juli

Innovation is a central component of a (legal) paper. But what constitutes an innovative paper and how do you write one? This article covers the 10 steps from the darkness of the unknown to the shining innovation.

Level: Advanced

From the darkness of the unknown to shining innovation in 10 steps.



Step 1: Find a "free spot"

Step 2: Choose a good timing

Step 3: Assess the potential

Step 4: Create the foundations

Step 5: Fill the "free spot" with innovations

Step 6: Restrict your innovation

Step 7: Let the innovation mature

Step 8: Lead the innovation to simplicity and elegance

Step 9: Diffuse your paper

Step 10: Return to step 1


Innovation is an important component of a paper. Through it, creative solutions to new problems (e.g., in the digital economy) can be found and the discourse can be further advanced.

Recommendation for students: It is not recommended to write a radical or even disruptive paper as a bachelor's or master's thesis (unless you are really, really good at legal research and writing). Since such a paper is a bigger challenge, the risk for a stronger criticism from the chair is higher. Moreover, innovation is hardly rewarded, resulting in a lower grade. Consequently, if you value a good grade, you should avoid radical and particularly disruptive bachelor's or master's theses. However, this article may still be useful for you:

  • As inspiration for a bachelor's or master's thesis that is only incrementally innovative ("a bit" innovative).

  • As a chance to improve yourself in writing (innovative) papers: writing a single radical/disruptive paper can teach you more than writing 10 normal papers.

Step 1: Find a "free spot"

It is easier to "get more out" of an innovative topic than from a topic that has already been extensively studied.

First, find a topic that, as far as can be seen, has only been worked on a few times - or, at best, never at all. Such a "free spot" can be found, for example, through these procedures:

  • An "element" (for more details on the term, see below) that has not yet been dealt with is worked on (e.g., a new technology that has never been legally analyzed, or a specific, yet unexplored point of a broader topic that has already been covered several times).

  • Two "elements", each of which has already been discussed, are combined to create something new (e.g., two (innovative) theories are united into one).

Regarding the term "element": the new element can be legal in nature (e.g., new ruling, revised statute, innovative approach in a legal paper) and/or non-legal in nature (e.g., emerging technologies, new business models, or economic forms such as trust economy). One area of law that still contains many "free spots" is, for example, data protection law. This relatively young area of law contains many highly controversial provisions and is ideal for a critique and new solutions. One could almost say: the more broken the area of law, the better...

In my opinion, this first step is one of the most important, since the topic forms the framework in which innovations are created. If the topic or the research question itself is not innovative, it will be difficult to produce (disruptive) innovative solutions - if only because many doctrines have already tried. Of course, even here an innovation can be created. But it is rather unlikely that this solution has not yet been recognized by all the other scholars, respectively that finding this solution is all the more difficult especially for students. As a result, it is easier to "get more out" of an innovative topic than from a topic that has already been extensively studied.


  • Not only should a good topic be chosen, but also one that fascinates the writer. This will make writing the paper easier.

  • Working on an unexplored "free space" also means that finding solutions can be very demanding. In my opinion, a broad prior knowledge, a certain experience in writing papers as well as networked thinking are crucial for this. However, such a topic can - depending on the chosen topic - be a big challenge especially for beginners. If the topic is (still) too difficult according to a realistic assessment, it may be necessary to switch to another topic that has already been worked on a few times. This can then be used as a basis (admittedly, the degree of innovation or at least novelty tends to be lower here). However, if the challenging paper is treated as a "subsidiary paper", it can still be written. In this case, the paper is written over a longer period of time, while your knowledge in the subject area expands. This can take several months to years. See also tip 6 of the post How to write a digital economy paper for the "subsidiary paper".

Step 2: Choose a good timing

The paper should be written or published neither too early nor too late.

Especially when writing an innovative paper, timing is crucial. The paper should be written or published neither too early nor too late. Too early means, for example, that there is still very little literature outside of the law. Here it can be difficult to even see the contours of a (controversial) topic such as a technology that is still in its early stages and will continue to evolve (e.g., Decentralized Web). An early focus on such a topic is only justified in exceptional cases (e.g., likely large impact of the technology).

On the other hand, waiting too long will lead to other people publishing legal papers on the chosen topic. This can be advantageous for those who prefer not to take a risk and build on existing publications (e.g., critique, supplement, different focus). However, persons who seek to be the first to work on a topic should not wait too long. An important indication of good timing is a large and growing number of publications outside of the law (e.g., 4D Printing). In this case, there is a chance that the topic has already been dealt with in a well-founded manner from natural science or economic point of view but has not yet been addressed from a legal perspective.

Step 3: Assess the potential

There is no point in writing about something new if it might become obsolete in the future, or at least not very relevant for society.

After a "free spot" has been selected and evaluated for timing, it should be estimated whether it will have a (significant) impact in the future (potential). There is no point in writing about something new if it might become obsolete in the future, or at least not very relevant for society.

How can the potential of a topic be assessed? The following indications could speak for such an impact:

  • Someone else predicts the potential (e.g., Gartner Hype Cycle).

  • The new element has already been considered several times from a non-legal perspective (e.g., natural science papers on 4D printing or mind-reading technology). If the element consists of emerging technology, this is an indication that the technology itself could have a huge potential - and therefore also its legal analysis.

  • The new element was (also) founded by an influential person/company/organization and is driven by them towards market maturity (e.g., Tim Berners-Lee, together with Inrupt Inc. and World Wide Web Consortium, has a significant influence on the Decentralized Web).

  • The new element is located in a context that could have a considerable impact (e.g., trusted technology like blockchain in the trust economy).

  • A certain development is going in the direction of the element. Elements that are already encountered within the development should no longer be selected as a central topic, as they are already outdated (e.g., discussions about data property). Rather, the development should be recognized and a next possible step should be suggested.


  • With time, you will develop a certain intuition whether a topic has great potential or not. So, at least in the beginning, don't think too much about it.

  • Life is difficult to predict because of its complexity. E.g., even the research and advisory firm Gartner Inc. did not include blockchain, which is now considered an important "foundation technology," in its Hype Cycle until eight years after it was founded, i.e., in 2016. And this was at a time when blockchain had already almost reached the "peak of inflated expectations" (hype). The assessment of the impact should therefore not take on too much importance. Nevertheless, one should refrain from topics whose future importance is obviously questioned.

Step 4: Create the foundations

It is important to recognize the "essence" of a matter. This addresses what really makes the thing (the peculiarities, the specifics).

The fourth step is to gain an overview of the topic. First, this includes an in-depth reading of the relevant literature, although research outside the topic is also encouraged. Possibly this "excessive" knowledge can become still useful later (e.g., recognizing further connections between ideas).

Thereafter, the knowledge can be put down on paper. Since a topic can quickly become very complex, it is important that the ideas are written down in an orderly fashion (e.g., in an introductory chapter). After all, the foundation on which you want to innovatively build must be as clear and understandable as possible. For example, you can go from the general to the specific. Or you can form groups of similar contents and look at the higher-level connections between the individual groups from a more abstract level. If necessary, it can also be useful if you represent the basics visually on a sketch. The individual elements (or groups of them) and their connections will become even clearer for you.

In addition, it is important to recognize the "essence" of a matter. This addresses what really makes the thing (the peculiarities, the specifics).Sometimes people mistakenly assume to have understood something at the first reading. However, if complex subjects are dealt with, it is advisable to read, e.g., 3-4 commentaries on the same provision. This will make it clear what a particular provision is really about. Otherwise, there is a risk that it will either be misunderstood or that innovative considerations based on the fundamentals will be argued past the issue (e.g., because the focus was on peripheral rather than central points). In addition, reading different sources on the same topic can enhance intuition, which is extremely important in innovative papers.

Step 5: Fill the "free spot" with innovations

Never follow the mainstream.

The next step is to work on the topic in an innovative way. More concrete approaches could therefore be:

  • Question the mainstream: is it the best solution? Does the solution still work today, but is there a development that will challenge the viability of the solution in the future? In other words, identify a societal change that you believe no longer fits the foundation of current law and propose a new solution (esp. fundamental critique). Examples: here and here. Also note that it is certainly possible to hold mainstream views. But writing a mainstream paper is strongly discouraged. Apart from the fact that in my opinion the mainstream is the home of the greatest boredom, you can hardly contribute anything to the discussion and not stand out from the crowd. Therefore, time and resources should rather be put into an (at best disruptive) innovative paper. Never follow the mainstream.

  • Find a problem that hasn't been solved yet (or that you can solve better): a solution of your own can consist of simply developing a solution from someone else or finding your own, somewhat more independent solution. In the latter case, you can also be inspired by solutions from other (legal) fields. Possibly similar problems exist in those areas, which have already found a good solution. You then only need to adapt this solution to the new problem and its peculiarities. Example: here.

  • Describe a new development and its regulatory challenges: identify the beginnings of a new development and describe its effects on society and the challenges for the law. You can also coin the name of the development (if this has not already been done) by placing a catchy term prominently in the paper (e.g., in the title). Example: here.

  • Identify a "large free spot" and write the first, comprehensive paper on it (40-50 pages). Since many points can be addressed as a result of the "large free spot", a properly structured table of contents is particularly important. In addition, timing is crucial (see step 2): the paper should be written neither too early (immature research topic) nor too late (other papers get ahead of you). Example: here. Note, however, that this is a more American perspective and in the DACH region 10-12 pages are more common. However, if you have found a "big open slot" with significant potential (which is quite rare), you should jump on it. If necessary, you can distribute the topic over several papers.

Other than that: try to recognize for yourself what constitutes innovative papers. These are often (but not always!) also influential papers that:

  • are cited a lot (e.g. see rankings in journals, if available),

  • have won important prizes,

  • were written by influential professors of elite universities.

Once you have found these papers, you can try to derive general principles from them. Ask yourself especially the following questions: why is this paper so successful? What makes it different from an ordinary paper? After that, you can write down the principles you have found so that you don't forget them.

These are just a few examples of innovative thinking. But how can you "trigger" innovative thoughts in the first place? Here, for example, you can draw inspiration from the innovation processes used in businesses. See, for example, the article 10 Tips To Be More Innovative at www.frost.com. In addition, you can also imagine discussing the problem with an inspiring person. This may give you interesting answers.

Step 6: Restrict your innovation

Put your opinion into perspective.

In most cases, it is necessary to restrict your innovation. The following constellations come into consideration:

  • Put your opinion into perspective: if something new is proposed, one should anticipate the possible criticism and pre-empt it by putting it into perspective. For example, if your idea is a better solution only in certain cases, the importance of your idea can be relativized and explicitly limited to those cases. Or it may be that your solution will not only solve old problems but also create new ones. The importance of the new solution must therefore be relativized. However, in a second step, it can be argued that the new approach is nevertheless more advantageous when viewed as a whole.

  • Adapt the radicality of your solution to the problem: more fundamental problems require a more radical innovation than more superficial problems. For the latter, a less radical solution often makes more sense. Conversely, radical innovation is not always the best solution and needs adaptation.

  • Unite two extreme positions: it is often the case that extreme positions are initially held, and only with time does a balance settle in the middle. If, for example, the prevailing opinion assumes A and your paper wants to argue for B, it can still make sense if the two extreme positions A and B are combined in your paper to form a more universal solution. This way, the process towards a more balanced solution can be anticipated (to a certain degree) and you risk less that someone else completes the theory. In sum, approach B may be convincing on its own at first sight. However, farsightedness dictates a balanced solution of A + B already from the beginning. If, however, A + B would make the paper too comprehensive, only B can be treated in the first paper and A + B in a second one.

Step 7: Let the innovation mature

The solution crystallizes more and more over time.

The next step is to mature the innovation. The paper is to be put aside and, over a few weeks or even months, questioned, improved, questioned again, improved again, etc. In this iterative process, the solution crystallizes more and more.

To omit this step is fatal. Example: many of the fundamental critiques of data protection law are limited to listing the current problems and their solutions in a banal manner. In doing so, the problems are viewed in isolation from one another, the connections are ignored, and the big picture is missed... Examples: here, here and here. So don't miss this important step in innovation creation and plan enough time for it. You can also turn the paper into a "subsidiary paper", i.e., you already start the next paper, but keep this paper in mind and let it mature over time.

Note: a long waiting time can lead to a (too) long paper. It may be necessary to split it into two parts.

Step 8: Lead the innovation to simplicity and elegance

Ultimately, the simplicity of the paper should open readers' eyes. They should be astonished and say: "Why didn't I think of that?"

Closely related to the previous step is the ultimate goal of a simple and elegant solution. For it is precisely in simplicity that lies the elegance that makes a good paper. However, it can happen that the thoughts have become innovative as a result of the maturing process, but at the same time they have remained complex and incomprehensible. Gradually break these innovative thoughts down to a solution that is as simple as it is ingenious. Ultimately, the paper's simplicity should open readers' eyes. They should be amazed and say: "Why didn't I think of that?"


  • If you don't use the writing process to reflect (and thus mature the innovation), this step can be taken as soon as you write the table of contents. For the rest, don't worry. Most of the paper you've already written and is now maturing can still be used (if you've stayed close to the research question). Simple elegance is less about content and more about the structure of the paper: renaming headings for consistency, reordering paragraphs/chapters, identifying connections between ideas, placing them in a larger context, or abstracting to a core theme from which all further ideas can be derived. Figuratively speaking: on the way to simple elegance, the innovative elements are embedded in a well thought-out structure.

  • If the paper has become complicated and confusing, it is advisable to write a one-page summary. This reduces the content to the essentials and helps to regain an overview.

  • The paper will never be perfect. Don't wait too long to submit/publish.

Step 9: Diffuse your paper

The best paper is worth nothing if it is not read.

Make sure that your paper is spread. The best paper is worth nothing if it is not read. Therefore, it might be beneficial if:

  • The paper is written in English (wider audience).

  • The paper is published in a journal that reaches many readers. This is especially true for a journal that is open-access or e.g., available on Beck.

  • The paper is distributed on other websites such as SSRN (if possible).

  • A short abstract of the paper is written, e.g., on your own website (if an abstract is not already part of the paper). This is especially useful for long papers of more than 15 pages. In my opinion, the hurdles to the content of the paper for the readers must be lowered as much as possible. Since readers often prefer no more than 10-12 pages, they might be put off by the length of a longer paper. So it is better for readers to read a bare summary than nothing at all. However, a fascinating summary may encourage readers to read the paper in its entirety after all.

  • The publication of the paper is announced on social media (e.g., LinkedIn, Twitter).

Step 10: Return to step 1

Don't let that discourage you and keep going.

Congratulations! You've now gone through all the steps and it's time for your next paper. Here is some general advice:

  • The 10 steps are intended as mere inspiration! They cannot (and should not) be followed rigidly in this order. You will see that you often go back and forth between the steps. For example, as the innovation matures (step 7), you find that you need to add a new element whose core needs to be identified (step 4) and which may need to be put into perspective (step 6).

  • Despite all idealism... Realize that a paper is in fact nothing more than an economic good that also follows economic logic (e.g., finding a niche, solving a problem in an innovative way, marketing). This is not about money. Rather, it is a matter of (also) thinking strategically at every step. In addition, one can also be inspired by the innovation processes within companies (see also step 5).

  • Despite all idealism... Realize that a paper is in fact nothing else than an economic good, which also follows the economic logic (e.g., solving a problem, promoting novelty/innovation, marketing).

  • Especially radical-innovative papers can meet with broad rejection, at least at the beginning. Don't let that discourage you and keep going.

Do you agree with my tips? Or do you have suggestions? Feel free to write it in the comments!

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