Legal Writing: Five-Step Checklist for Better Editing and Proofreading

By Ivy B. Grey

The difference between good and bad legal writing is that good legal writing clearly conveys its message. If written work is sloppy, disorganized, or muddled then it fails because readers have limited working memory to consume and digest complex information. The more stumbling blocks in your writing, the less likely readers are to fully understand what you are trying to communicate.

To make sure your writing always meets the highest standard, this article shows how you can split checking into proofreading and editing stages; provides a checklist to help make your document shine; and points to interactive editing software that can give you a competitive advantage when you’re under time pressure.

The Difference Between Editing and Proofreading

Both clients and lawyers value key parts of legal drafting, such as researching and processing legal concepts, generating and organizing content, and ultimately writing legal prose. They don’t tend to value checking and correcting text. However, editing and proofreading are just as valuable and necessary to transform your text into good legal writing.

Editing is the process of improving content, clarity, structure, and substance. Proofreading is the process of reviewing a completed written document for inconsistencies, spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors, formatting mistakes, and typos. Both are integral, inter-related parts of the drafting process. The impact of a well-written document is worth the time it takes to complete both stages. Use tools like American Legal Style for PerfectIt to ensure that your writing is error-free. These programs are inexpensive so you can afford to buy them for yourself. Your reputation is worth it.

Five-Step Checklist for Better Editing

When you edit your document, be sure to:

  • Review for clarity and overall comprehension. Make sure that your target audience will understand your writing. Are you writing for a colleague, a client, or a judge?
  • Edit for structure. Consider adding headings and subheadings to break up your writing to make it easier to read and remember. Headings should provide a compelling overview of your document and can provide a visual representation of how each part fits together. Headings can also be persuasive and subtly encourage the reader to adopt your position.
  • Check for logical flow between concepts and paragraphs. Simply using IRAC is not enough. Do not leave your reader guessing how or why you are making each statement. Be sure to guide your reader through each logical step.
  • Revisit your reason for writing. Make sure that your document answers the questions asked and serves the intended purpose. It’s easy to get caught up in details and lose sight of the main idea.
  • Check for legalese. If there is another way to express your information, use plain English. Clients prefer documents that they can understand on their own. Most importantly, be consistent. An inconsistent mix of legalese and plain English could provide grounds for dispute.

And Five Steps for Better Proofreading

As you proofread, look for these errors:

  • Check for consistent use of defined terms. Are they capitalized? Are they used correctly and consistently? Did you use any synonyms instead of the proper defined term?
  • Review all titles, headings, the case caption, and your client’s name. Check again. These errors are often skipped over and can be the most glaring and embarrassing.
  • Search for omitted words and incomplete edits by reading your document aloud, backwards, or upside down. This will help you to notice errors that you may otherwise mentally compensate for if you are not active in your proofreading.
  • Look for words that spell check gets wrong, such as principle/principal or statute/statue.
  • Check for apostrophes, commas, unclosed quotes and parentheses, and other punctuation. Stray or inconsistent punctuation can cause confusion or change meaning.

Proofreading and editing are both time-consuming. There’s no way to skip them entirely and still produce good legal writing. However, you can use software to speed both processes up and give yourself a competitive advantage.

Interactive Software Makes Editing and Proofreading Faster

Technology cannot replace your thought process and experience. And you should be wary of ceding total control to any so-called “smart” technology. As a lawyer and as the writer entrusted to document the agreement or idea, only you know what you intend to convey so it is important that you have the final say in all editing decisions. However, when you are familiar with your own work (or when you are tired or under time pressure), it is difficult to focus on small details. So you need software that will work with you by bringing errors to your attention. Good technology allows you to make final decisions, while also reducing the potential for introducing new errors during the editing process.
A variety of software tools can help, but two inexpensive products work particularly well together because together they assist with both stages:

  • WordRake helps with editing. It can find and correct bloated, muddled language, and legalese and transform your writing into clear and concise English. It functions using the familiar track changes feature and suggests revisions that will make your writing clearer.
  • PerfectIt with American Legal Style helps with proofreading. It can spot legal-specific typos, inconsistencies, and other mistakes that no spell check or grammar check can find. It functions like spell check and walks you through errors and provides recommended fixes. PerfectIt draws from the legal writing guidelines that every lawyer knows (but may not have the time to use). For example, it checks for (1) common errors in case citations based on preferences in the Bluebook, including misplaced periods, transposed letters, and extra spaces; and (2) spelling, capitalization, hyphenation, and italicization in legal terms of art based on Black’s Law Dictionary.

Both of these products leave the lawyer in control of every edit, and every final decision. They’re education, too, since they teach you to learn to spot these mistakes and develop better judgment for your next piece of legal writing.

Conclusion: Prioritize Editing and Proofreading to Be a Better Writer

Clarity is crucial to achieving your goals as a legal writer. Whether you are writing for a client, a colleague, or a judge, the clearer your work, the more likely you are to have a positive outcome.

Writing is a fundamental part of the practice of law and it is essential to do it well. Focus on making top quality writing a priority in your practice today. Develop good proofreading and editing practices and invest in technology to help you. Your readers will notice and thank you.

Ivy B. Grey is the author of American Legal Style for PerfectIt, which is a proofreading and editing program for lawyers that runs inside of MS Word. It adds polish, reduces frustration, and saves non-billable time. Ms. Grey is also a Senior Attorney at Griffin Hamersky LLP. She's been named as a Rising Star in the New York Metro Area for four consecutive years, and her significant representations include In re AMR Corp. (American Airlines), In re Dewey & LeBoeuf LLP, In re Eastman Kodak Company, and In re Filmed Entertainment Inc. (Columbia House).

This article was originally published in Rocket Matter's Legal Productivity on December 12, 2016.

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