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August 30, 2017 Articles

When You Think You’re Done, You’re Not

Writing well is one of the most critical skills in the legal profession.

By Tesha L. Williams

Bar none, writing well is one of the most critical skills in the legal profession. Like most people, you may have struggled with various aspects of legal writing. I have always wanted to be an adept writer; I still do. So, on my journey to achieve that goal, one thing became clear to me: Editing is paramount in legal writing. As I honed certain skills and continued to cultivate others toward perfection, the editing process remained the same. Yet, editing is usually marginalized in the legal writing process. This occurs when a writer is derailed in the ebb and flow of legal writing principles or has failed to plan for the editing stage. Below are editing topics and tips to aid any writer in the legal profession. As you scrupulously draft various documents, remember one thing­—when you think you're done, you're not!

Fighting Through the Mist
It is easy to get lost in the fog of war while trying to develop a theme, organize a legal argument, incorporate style, and convey a message to the reader. It is very important when entering the legal writing project that you have a road map to direct you through the mayhem. Writing without a road map can lead to confusion in your message and, more importantly, diminish the editing process. As you create your work, ask yourself three questions: (1) what document am I writing; (2) to whom am I writing; and (3) what do I want to say to the reader?

Answering these three questions should prompt you to research. I was told by a mentor that good writing begins with good reading, and that the best way to get better at writing is to practice and emulate other good writers. I believe this is true. While researching the law to increase your legal acumen, consider perusing a small pool of well-written examples of your document. It is usually best if you already have the name of a good author in mind to minimize your example search. Also, search for works created by the reader. This will give you better insight into the reader's style and preference. Not only will you have a good model to analyze, but you will also have the reader's perspective.

Robert Graves stated, "There is no such thing as good writing. Only good rewriting." When sifting through the writing trenches, apply these strategies: First, minimize the length of your work, then minimize it again, and then minimize it a third time. Rarely is a document criticized for its brevity. The quickest way to minimize your work is to cut out adjectives and delete unnecessary sentences or words. Be concise, avoid lengthy sentences, and speak in active voice. Second, make the document easy for the reader to follow by aiding the reader with headings and subheadings to allow for skimming. Third, organize the document's structure. Consistency in the rule structure and legal rationale help maintain the organization. Fourth, review the document's tone. The tone should mirror the purpose of the document. Is the document informative, persuasive, or objective? Is it written to a lay person or a legal professional? Fifth, check all citations according to the Bluebook, and then double-check them. Sixth, eliminate typos and grammar errors.

Another conflict I faced was editing as I wrote to save time on the back end. Editing as you write is a fatal mistake. It is counterproductive and leads to a loss in time, production, and frame of thought. Now I find "dumping" and a sketched outline to be helpful. I put all of my thoughts on paper to organize and edit afterwards. Editing needed its own checklist, but we are not done yet.

A Guide to the End
The editing stage itself requires ample focus and time. When I entered law school, I thought editing meant reviewing your work for typos and misspelled words. I quickly realized that simply reviewing your work is insufficient and that true editing required multiple rewrites. I learned the hard way, and over time I formed a practical guide with editing tips and advice to further my development. 

How can you increase your rhetorical skill through practical measures to amplify your writing results? Begin with self-editing. As I stated, prior to law school, I did not do much rewriting and thus not much self-editing. Self-editing required an effort to become accustomed to it, but it is an excellent skill for anyone in the legal profession. The cost of paying a legal editor to review work is expensive and can be avoided with time and preparation. A wise mentor and judge once said, "Seeing a typo is like telling me that you were too busy to care about your work, the case, or my opinion." This can be a hard pill to swallow.

The editing process has many moving parts, and a lot takes place before there is a final product. Here are helpful editing tips I have received from professors, mentors, or colleagues:

  1. Have a completed initial draft. Initial drafts are not meant to be perfect, but they should be completed.

  2. Create or find an edit checklist, preferably one tailored to your document.

  3. Revise your draft at least 10 times before submission.

  4. Print a hard copy to review your work.

  5. Edit your final draft in sections; for example, edit all citations in the document first, then review grammar, and next review sentence structure.

  6. Use a piece of colored construction paper to review the printed document line by line to hone your focus on the isolated line. This is extremely helpful in pointing out typos, punctuation errors, word confusion, and grammar.

  7. Minimize, minimize, and minimize again. It is easy to create a lengthy document, but it is much harder to create a concise work of important information.

  8. Make sure you have scheduled enough time to edit your project by doubling the projected time—if a 6-page document normally requires 6 hours to complete, then schedule 12 total hours to work on that particular assignment.

A few words in closing: Strive for perfection in your writing and editing skills. In the legal profession, your work product is your livelihood. With practice and proper guidance, you will see progress.

Tesha L. Williams – August 30, 2017