A Brief Guide to Editing Like a Pro

Read most any published piece of fiction and it’s been revised and edited like mad. The same goes for a lot of other pieces of writing, from essays to literary journalism. There’s a reason for this: putting the words down is relatively easy (presuming the blank page hasn’t scared you frozen from the start). But getting from first draft to final draft is more difficult. It’s a process of elimination. If you want to make your legal writing scream with persuasion and polish and style, follow this brief guide to editing like a pro.

  1. Get it down. Write that first draft. If you’re having trouble starting, just write the first sentence, or the first word. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that your legal writing need be perfect. It won’t be. It never will be. You can only do your best, but to do your best, you have to get the first draft done.
  2. Set it aside. Give yourself a day or two, if you have the time, away from the document, so your mind gets a break. Feel free to work on an unrelated legal writing project. If you sidestepped the trap mentioned in Step 1, your non-procrastinating self got that first draft done, and now you’ve got enough time to set the draft aside before the deadline.
  3. Read it through. Read your document and slash (or add) language where it’s obvious for you to do so. This is a preliminary step, a prelude to the main course in Steps 4 and 5. But if you add language, don’t go crazy. Chances are good that you’ve got a lot of slashing to do.
  4. Slash. The writer David Foster Wallace said, “It looks like you can write a minimalist piece without much bleeding. And you can. But not a good one.” You need to be a butcher. Good legal writing doesn’t just appear whole-cloth in the first draft—though first drafts do tend to be better as your writing skills improve. The minimalism we’re looking for here is simply concision. Judges (and their clerks) won’t think any better of you if you submit unnecessarily long, turgid pages of legal writing.
  5. Revise. This is, perhaps, the most important step. Revision, as my fiction workshop teacher and short-story writer Dale Gregory Anderson said, is your chance to “re-vision” the document. It’s the moment to ask yourself whether what you’ve written gets your point across. Have you summarized, for instance, the case and your argument and what you want for your client at the beginning (and end) of the document? If you can’t do it in a sentence or two, revise.

The short-story writer Raymond Carver was famous for piling up inches-high stacks of drafts for a single story (and his editor was just as famous for slashing the drafts Carver sent him). As a fiction writer, Carver was by no means unique.

Lawyers don’t generally have the time to labor over multiple drafts, but you’re a professional writer, too. Editing (and “re-visioning”) is the tool that will elevate your craft.

(photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/aquariawintersoul/4256202207/)

Subscribe

Get Lawyerist in Your Inbox, Daily

Current Articles
Current Lab Discussions
  • Chris,

    I agree 100% with your tips. If possible, putting an article away for a day (or overnight) reaps many benefits. I don’t know why, but it seems like my brain resets itself overnight, and phrases that I thought were OK the day before can look awkward the next day.

    I’d also add that great editing comes from having others review drafts and forcing them to make suggestions/edits. Bryan Garner has a policy of circulating every brief he works on to the attorney staff at LawProse, and each attorney must make at least two or three editing suggestions. Most lawyers don’t have this resource, but it sure would be helpful if they did.

    • Chris Bradley

      Thanks for your comment, Matthew.

      You’ve had two great posts, by the way. I’ve really enjoyed them. You give me a run for my money, when it comes to the legal writing topic. I’m sure Sam is glad to have you writing here.

      Cheers.

  • Jenny

    As an appellate writing instructor, I tell my students every semester that editing is the most important step of writing their briefs. In fact, I tell them that they should spend just as much time editing as they do writing (I’m pretty sure I stole that from Scalia and Garner’s first collaboration, “Making Your Case”). Unfortunately, very few law students or lawyers follow this advice — and that is readily apparent by the briefs submitted to the court. Editing is such an important step of the writing process and few (no?) writers can afford to skimp on it.

    • Chris Bradley

      I think your hunch is right. No writers can afford to skimp on it. No matter how good you are. Thanks for your comment!