Self-Editing for Excellence
by Scott Wood
(County Bar Update, September 2007, Vol. 27, No. 8)

 

Self-Editing for Excellence

 

By Scott Wood, clinical professor, Loyola Law School, Los Angeles. Wood offers writing workshops for litigators and one-on-one consultations. He can be reached at Scott.Wood@LLS.edu.

 

The primary difference between the expert legal writer and the novice is reader-sensitivity, the editorial eye that enables the expert to see the document from the reader’s point of view. Being able to read from the opposite side of the page, the expert can see the weaknesses and gaps, both macro and micro. More importantly, the expert knows how to employ editing methods that serve the particular purposes of the document. The methods for editing an appellate brief differ from those for a transmittal letter.

 

Whether the required editing methods entail a quick cleanup or an intensive overhaul, self-editing depends on a proper attitude. Bryan Garner warns that “all writers resist criticism. You tend to equate your writing with your intellect. You might instinctively feel that if someone criticizes your writing, it’s an assault on the way your mind works.”1 In addition to this instinctive resistance to criticism from without, we also tend to tune out the critical voice within. So the first step in self-editing for excellence is an attitude adjustment.

 

The self-editing attitudes encompass humility, self-discipline, and patience. First, step out of the assertive advocate role and humble-down. Rather than assume that your draft is ready to deliver, read like experienced judges: “While any law-trained reader is a skeptical reader, testing the analysis at every step, a judge is particularly so. The skepticism and testing is the heart of the judge’s job.”2 This rigorous objectivity is also the heart of self-editing for excellence.

 

Self-discipline is a second self-editing virtue. More accurately, this virtue is plural because some disciplines are small steps such as always letting the draft cool overnight and always printing out a hard copy rather than editing on the screen. Other disciplines are more substantive, such as working out methodologies and checklists that fit the type of document, e.g., one list for an opinion letter, another for a settlement demand, still another for an appellate brief.

 

Finally, the proper self-editing attitudes include patience, which does not seem to be a common lawyerly trait. But the best editors have patience in abundance. 

 

Armed with the proper attitude, the next concern is the best choice of editing method. Just as one cannot look out the window and clean off flyspecks at the same time, the self-editor cannot simultaneously rethink the organization and search for spelling errors. Accordingly, most expert self-editors employ two checklists: one micro, one macro. Reasonable minds differ on which comes first. For example, Garner begins with the micro: “We...begin by clearing out the underbrush—sentence by sentence....Then we go through the piece again to rethink structure, transitions, and the ideas themselves.”3

 

In contrast, Stephen Armstrong and Timothy Terrell4 first check the document’s basic approach and organization. Then they edit the micro: clarity of sentences, correctness of grammar, and punctuation.

 

Despite differing preferences for editing sequence, the content of macro and micro checklists finds broad agreement among the experts. Here’s one set of lists that works:

 

Macro Edits

  • Is the central issue clearly stated up front?
  • Are the major parts well organized with effective headings?
  • Is the logic road-mapped with topic and transitional sentences?
  • Does each paragraph fully develop the topic but not overparticularize?
  • Are the tone and diction professional throughout?

Micro Edits

  • On average, are the sentences short (20-25 words) and direct?
  • Are sentences written in the active voice unless the passive is a conscious choice, e.g., actor-irrelevant?
  • Are bureaucratic nominalizations replaced with strong verbs?
  • Is every sentence grammatical and correctly punctuated?
  • Are spelling, spacing, underlining, and italics checked?
  • Has a final pass omitted needless words?

William Zinsser rings the final self-editing bell:

Look for the clutter in your writing and prune it ruthlessly. Be grateful for everything you can throw away. Reexamine each sentence you put on paper. Is every word doing new work? Can any thought be expressed with more economy? Is anything pompous or pretentious or faddish? Are you hanging on to something useless just because you think it’s beautiful? Simplify, simplify.5

Now just try to edit that.

 

1 BRYAN A. GARNER, LEGAL WRITING IN PLAIN ENGLISH: A TEXT WITH EXERCISES 137 (2001).

 

2 LINDA HOLDEMAN EDWARDS, LEGAL WRITING: PROCESS, ANALYSIS, AND ORGANIZATION 253 (1999).

 

3 GARNER, supra note 1, at 138.

 

4 STEPHEN V. ARMSTRONG & TIMOTHY P. TERRELL, THINKING LIKE A WRITER: A LAWYER’S GUIDE TO EFFECTIVE WRITING AND EDITING 300 (2003).

 

5 WILLIAM ZINSSER, ON WRITING WELL: THE CLASSIC GUIDE TO WRITING NONFICTION 17 (1998).

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