Edit in stages

Focus on one type of problem at a time.

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You should assume that your drafts are flawed and will need to be overhauled before being delivered to a court or client. You should therefore be prepared to engage in many rounds of revision, and you should also welcome candid suggestions from colleagues and professional editors.

Train yourself to be very detail-oriented during the editing process. Aim for excellence. Try to improve every section, paragraph, sentence, and word in your draft; do not tolerate spelling, grammar, usage, punctuation, or formatting errors. When in doubt, look it up!

Most writers edit by starting at the beginning and reading through a document, making changes as they go. This is inefficient. Editing, like writing generally, should proceed in stages.[1]

The keys to efficient editing are to (1) focus on one type of problem at a time, and (2) consider large-scale edits before minor edits. I suggest that you edit for the following items in the following order:

1.     Audience. Have you put the reader’s needs first? Consider whether your draft’s tone, length, level of detail, and basic approach are appropriate for your target audience. For example, a letter to a client usually does not need to include every legal nuance that you turned up in your research; the client is probably looking instead for practical, business-minded advice.

2.     Organization. Is the overall outline of your document logical? Are your sections and paragraphs logically sequenced? Have you provided context before details? Have you built “containers” such as list frameworks for the information you convey?

3.     Coherence of sections and paragraphs. Does all the material in a section or subsection relate to and further the section’s point heading? Does each sentence in a paragraph relate to the paragraph’s main idea?

4.     Smoothness of transitions. Does each paragraph or sentence share a conceptual (and, in most cases, verbal) link to the preceding and following paragraph or sentence? Are there any jarring shifts that might cause the reader to wonder why they are suddenly reading about a new topic?

5.     Large-scale concision. Have you deleted every unnecessary argument, idea, and detail?[2]

6.     Sentence clarity. Are your sentences clear and readable? Do you vary your sentences’ length, consider rhythm, frontload most sentences with the main subject and verb, and otherwise follow this blog’s advice for writing strong sentences?

7.     Small-scale concision. Have you deleted every unnecessary sentence and word?

8.     Correctness of grammar, punctuation, usage, style, and citation format. Have you looked up every doubtful question in an appropriate reference book?[3]

9.     Avoidance of typos. Have you read your drafts aloud and had a computer program read them to you? Have you had a good copy editor review your draft?

If you edit as you write, or if you edit by proceeding in a linear fashion from the first sentence to the last, you risk overlooking some of these critical aspects of editing. In particular, you are likely to focus on minutiae before (or instead of) thinking about larger-scale questions such as whether your document as a whole is coherent. Instead, practice breaking the writing and editing processes into stages until doing so becomes
a habit.

[1]     Some of these suggestions about the editing process are drawn from Stephen V. Armstrong and Timothy P. Terrell, Thinking Like a Writer: A Lawyer’s Guide to Effective Writing and Editing 309–14(3d ed. 2009).

[2]     Richard Lanham advises that most first drafts have a “lard factor” of one-third to one-half, meaning that you should expect to delete 30–50% of that draft before you are done editing. See Richard Lanham, Revising Prose 2 (1979).

[3]     For word usage, refer to Bryan A. Garner, Garner’s Modern English Usage and a good dictionary. For grammar and style, refer to Bryan A. Garner, The Redbook: A Manual of Legal Style and The Chicago Manual of Style. For citation formatting, refer to the ALWD Guide to Legal Citation (recommended) or The Bluebook.

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Ryan McCarl teaches Advanced Legal Writing and researches artificial intelligence law and policy at the UCLA School of Law. He is also a partner at the law firm Rushing McCarl. You can follow him on LinkedIn and Twitter as well as his personal blog.