Legal Editing Demystified
A Process for Polishing Your Prose
February 2021Download This Article (.pdf)
You’ve written a brief, client memo, or other work product. What’s the best strategy for ensuring the piece sparkles? This article sets forth a recommended process for editing—defined broadly to encompass both honing your writing and correcting errors. Adopting such a process will guarantee high-quality work products that powerfully advance your arguments and build your credibility and reputation. In addition to a recommended editing process, this article includes a sample checklist for document cleanups.
The Disciplined Approach
We’ve all run across legal documents that are embarrassingly muddled and mistake ridden. Most lawyers learn basic principles of legal writing in law school or perhaps as entry-level attorneys. So the problem usually isn’t that lawyers don’t know how to write, but rather that lawyers don’t adopt a systematic approach to refining their writing and eliminating errors.
Whether you’re writing for a judge, a savvy client, your boss, or another audience, a careful edit of your document is an essential—but often neglected—step. Part of being an effective advocate is ensuring that nothing detracts from the persuasiveness of your legal analysis. Your work product will be less credible if it’s beset by poor grammar, typos, and the like. Worse still, writing that is convoluted, disorganized, or sloppy can obscure your message altogether.
I urge lawyers to follow a formal, multilayered editing process. By adopting a disciplined approach to editing, lawyers can hone their writing, make efficient use of time, and ensure their final work product is consistently professional and persuasive.
A Recommended Editing Process
Time is an indispensable element of the rewriting and editing process. Lawyers are notorious for cobbling together documents mere minutes before a deadline. But to craft a compelling written product, you’ll need to reserve a significant block of time for multiple reads. At least once, you should review a hard copy rather than relying solely on a screen.
The editing process has several key steps: considering big-picture issues, boosting readability, improving style, ensuring consistency (including formatting), and checking grammar and legal citations. The order in which you tackle these items is up to you, but it’s most efficient to finalize organization and sentence structure before turning to formatting and grammar. Final steps often should include peer review, consulting a cleanup checklist, and reading the document aloud.
1. Big-Picture Issues
The natural first step in the editing process is to ensure your writing is organized and logical. Consider the following big-picture elements:
- Organization: Address the most important points first, maintain chronological order where possible, eliminate redundancies, and break up big blocks of text with headings.
- Substantive issues: Assess whether the document accurately characterizes the law and is clear, logical, persuasive, and internally consistent.
- Completeness: Make sure you’ve hit all the relevant questions or issues.
- Tone: Ensure the tone is confident, respectful, appropriately formal, and never belittling.
Once you’ve put all the pieces of your document in place, turn to improving readability:
- Give the reader a roadmap at the outset by outlining the organization of the document.
- Provide topic sentences and conclusions, as well as transitional phrases when switching gears (“Here, the facts show . . .”).
- Break up overly long sentences and paragraphs.
- Consider using bullet points.
- Change legalese to plain English (“until now,” not “heretofore”).
- Remove double negatives.
- Use tense consistently, favoring present tense when in doubt (“the opinion states,” not “the opinion stated”; “next, we address,” not “next, we will be addressing”).
- Use emphasis sparingly, and choose bold rather than underline, italics, or (horror of horrors) ALL CAPS.
- Cut unnecessary instances of that, but don’t shrink from using that where it clarifies your meaning.
- Avoid alphabet soup—only use acronyms and initialisms for terms that appear often.
Closely related to boosting readability is enlivening your writing. Strategies to apply include:
- Make passive voice active (“the court decided,” not “it was decided by the court”).
- Eliminate wordiness (“to,” not “in order to,” and “during,” not “in the course of”).
- Use varied sentence structures.
- Avoid “throat-clearing” phrases that don’t add real information (“Colorado law recognizes,” not “it is well established that Colorado law recognizes”).
- Change lengthy conjunctive adverbs (consequently, furthermore, subsequently) to shorter conjunctive adverbs (still, thus) or to conjunctions (so, but, yet, and). And don’t be afraid to start a sentence with a conjunction.
- Avoid clunky nominalizations (turning an adjective or verb into a noun) (instead of “reached a decision,” say “decided”).
- Try to avoid beginning sentences with “There are” or “It is.”
- Don’t tell your reader that something is “clear” or “obvious.”
Here are four ways to ensure your document is consistent:
- Refer to people, places, documents, and courts consistently (it’s usually fine to use a shortened form after the first use).
- Use defined terms correctly (define a term on first reference, and then stick to using the defined term).
- Be consistent in using hyphens (and err on the side of omitting hyphens after routine prefixes, e.g., pretrial, nonstatutory).
- Review formatting for consistent font, line spacing, headings, indentations, and margins; remove extra spaces and paragraph breaks; and follow any applicable formatting rules or standards.
5. Grammar and Typos
Checking for grammar, typos, spelling, syntax, and punctuation is critical. Microsoft Word’s spelling and grammar tool is helpful, though not entirely reliable. For example, it won’t catch uses of “statue” when you mean “statute.” Some lawyers use editing software such as Grammarly or PerfectIt. Ultimately, it’s important to use your own brain as part of a grammar check, referring as needed to a dictionary and a style book such as The Redbook: A Manual on Legal Style.
6. Legal Citations
Legal citations must appear wherever needed, must correctly represent legal authority, and must conform to The Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation or other applicable manuals.
7. Peer Review
After following these steps, you should have a near-final product. This is a great time to ask an eagle-eyed colleague or a legal editor to review your work. We all have personal writing foibles, and we can become blind to deficiencies when we’re immersed in a project, so a second pair of eyes is invaluable.
8. Cleanup Checklist
Once you’ve incorporated a peer’s suggestions, it’s time to consult a cleanup checklist, such as the one provided here. You can tailor this checklist to your own needs. For example, if you work in environmental law, you could include a reminder about properly referring to species names. Using a cleanup checklist works best when reviewing a hard copy.
9. Read Aloud
Last but far from least, you should read the document aloud—yes, really read it out loud! When I clerked at the Colorado Supreme Court, it was standard practice for each justice’s team of clerks to read aloud the justice’s draft opinions before release—right down to the punctuation marks. Lawyers who have not tried this tool will be floored by how many errors they catch.
A Final Note
Congratulations! Your document should now meet the highest standards of professionalism. Here are a few additional writing practices that can simplify the final editing process:
- Work from a template with set styles to improve formatting consistency.
- Configure Word to show formatting marks as you’re writing to reveal issues like extra spaces.
- Double-check each legal citation as you write it.
- Maintain (and frequently consult) a list of defined terms for your document.
- Consult readability statistics in Word periodically.
- Highlight any problematic wording as a reminder to return to it.
- Keep useful references like The Bluebook, The Redbook, Black’s Law Dictionary, and a thesaurus within easy reach, and use them often.
The recommendations here don’t exhaustively cover best practices for editing, and what works for one lawyer may not work for another. The key point is that a thoughtful approach to editing is essential for important written products—and even for informal writing, like emails to clients. Adopting a standard process will remove distracting blemishes and inconsistencies from your written product so your work can shine.