Last updated: 14 June, 2018
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.
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.
When you edit your document, be sure to:
As you proofread, look for these errors:
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.
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:
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.
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.