Rachel DuFault is an attorney and works as a copy editor for the Human Resources Library at BNA. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You’re finally done writing your brief for your court case, letter to a client, or article to be published in a legal publication. What’s next? Before filing that brief with the court, sending the letter to the client, or submitting that article to the publication, you should take some time to edit your document to ensure that it contains the appropriate content and reflects proper style. Taking this extra step also is a matter of professionalism.
Editing is a thorough review of the overall structure and content of your writing and style issues, such as grammar and punctuation. But what does it mean to edit your own work? The following are some guidelines and tips to help you begin and work through the process.
Step 1: Put it away! As tempting as it is to review your work the moment you print it off the printer or lay down your pen, the first step in the editing process is to set it aside and do something else. You probably spent considerable time working on the document, and the words and their meanings will likely blur together if you start editing right away.
If you edit your document with fresh eyes, you stand a better chance of catching and correcting errors. With a renewed focus, you can tackle challenges that might appear in a first draft, such as an incorrect portion of a statute that is highlighted in the text or a wrong case supporting an important contention. So take a break from your work before editing your material, whether it is for a day, an afternoon, an hour, or even ten minutes (if you’re under a tight deadline).
Step 2: Edit for content. When you first approach your document, you should read it just for the content. (Don’t worry about grammar yet!) In this edit, make sure that you covered all the areas that you intended and that your thought process can be clearly followed. Look for places where information is lacking, possibly misleading, or unclear and correct these errors.
When editing your work, always keep in mind who your audience is and make sure they will understand the legal words and phrases you use. For example, if you are writing a letter to a client, consider reducing the legal tone of the letter and explaining legal words and phrases. While terms like equitable relief or tortious interference might be acceptable in a memo to your colleagues, such words in a client letter might leave your client confused.
Step 3: Edit for style. After focusing on your content, edit your document for style. Are you writing a memo, a brief to the superior court, or a scholarly article? Your document should reflect the appropriate format that is set out by your firm, courts, public agencies, or publications.
Whenever possible, you should acquire the style manual or guidelines established by the entity for which you are writing. As you go through this edit, review and apply the appropriate style guidelines (e.g., Are roman numerals required for new sections in briefs or can you use footnotes in articles?). Also, be sure to follow appropriate Bluebook style guidelines.
Step 4: Don’t forget spelling and grammar! Brush off your college English grammar books and drag out your dictionary. The next step in editing your document is to check for spelling and grammar errors. Nothing can be worse than receiving written work that is riddled with misspelled words and incorrect grammar! Review each of your paragraphs line-by-line for common spelling and grammatical errors: for example, if you find that a sentence has too many “ands” and “ors,” you might have a run-on sentence.
Even if you run the spell check or grammar check on your computer, print out your document and read it again for spelling and grammar errors as you might have selected the wrong word or phrase in using those tools (“an” can easily become “and”).
Step 5: Find a second pair of eyes. A final step in editing your document is to find a colleague or friend to review your document (if you’re under a tight deadline, this step can be optional). While you might feel confident that you’ve caught all your errors through your own edits, a second pair of eyes reading your document can give you a fresh perspective on any subtle or glaring errors and help polish your finished work.
While editing your document may seem daunting or tedious, it’s the most important part of your written work. Taking time to review your brief, client letter, or article can save you from embarrassing errors and costly mistakes (For example, you meant to settle a case at $500,000, but the settlement document reads $50,000). Editing also will improve the quality of your overall work and make a positive impression on those who read it.