Write Better Legal Documents with an Editing Checklist

self editing lawyer

By using a self-editing checklist to edit your writing, you will quickly improve the quality of your finished work. You will also become a stronger writer who produces better first drafts and finishes writing assignments quickly.

The Benefits of Self-Editing Your Writing

Lawyers are often advised to allow others to comment on drafts of his or her written work. Sometimes, though, it’s hard to find someone who has the time to read a legal brief or other lengthy documents. And even when you can find willing readers, their editing advice might be incomplete.

This is why you should learn to be your own self-editor. It isn’t as difficult as it sounds. Simply develop a checklist like the one suggested here, then apply it step-by-step to each piece of work you want to polish.

The checklist approach ensures you will look at your writing objectively. Even if you think your draft is perfect, the checklist requires you to ask yourself hard questions that will make your document better.

Over time, you will become so familiar with your checklist that you’ll think about it as you are writing your initial drafts. This will make your writing stronger and speed up the process of revision and editing.

Complete Your Revisions First

Even though editing shares much in common with revising, think of editing as a second, separate step that you can’t start until after you have finished your revisions.

After you think your work is close to being completed, let it sit for awhile. When you pick it up again, you want to be able to see it objectively as if someone else had written it.

Edit Your Draft by Working Through Your Checklist Step-by-Step

The checklist that follows summarizes the steps I take in self-editing my legal writing. Although I have tried to be comprehensive, it probably doesn’t capture every thought I have when I’m editing my work. Expand or modify the checklist to suit your needs.

1. Edit for Organization

  • Are your arguments organized logically? When writing a brief, many lawyers lead with their strongest arguments. But if you are responding to something your opponent has already written, you might want to mirror your opponent’s presentation, responding to arguments in the same order. Ask yourself whether you can defend the way you have chosen to organize your work.
  • Have you used headings to create white space? Page after page of solid text can be an imposing barrier for readers. Break up your arguments with headings and sub-headings. Headings will also make it easier for a reader to get your meaning. Use bullets to organize lists of similar information.
  • Do your headings keep the reader moving forward? When possible, use the heading to express your argument directly. The most effective headings incorporate your spin as an advocate. Not “The Standard for Imposing Sanctions” but “Plaintiffs Should Be Sanctioned.”

2. Edit for Substance

  • Did you correctly state the facts of the case? If you want to maintain your credibility as an advocate, your statement of the facts must be beyond reproach.
  • Are your case citations complete and accurate? What about pinpoint citations? Are your cases still good law?
  • Did you  discuss every important case? Remember you might have an ethical obligation to disclose adverse authority.
  • Did you respond to all your opponent’s arguments while conceding when necessary? If you fail to address every point made by your opponents, you are handing them an opportunity to argue that your silence means you agree with their positions. On the other hand, many lawyers feel compelled to defend indefensible positions that aren’t material. Concede when necessary, and your credibility will be enhanced.
  • Is your tone appropriate? If you choose the wrong tone, the reader might be too distracted to consider the substance of your work. When you write a legal brief, for example, the judge will assume from the start that you disagree with your opponent’s position. If you want to be persuasive, cut out the name-calling and adopt an objective, reasonable tone.
  • Did you check for overstatement? If your reader thinks you have overstated your position, you might never recover your credibility.

3. Edit for Readability

  • Have you eliminated clutter? Whenever possible, replace the complex with the simple. Cut out sentences and paragraphs that are repetitive or unnecessary.
  • Can any sentences be shortened by breaking them in two? Long, complex sentences might be a fixture in legal writing, but they detract from comprehension.
  • Did you eliminate needless words? Have you cut all unnecessary adjectives and adverbs? Have you cut inessential prepositions?
  • Did you use a large word where a small one will do? Your giant vocabulary is more likely to confuse than impress your readers. Don’t be afraid to use one and two-syllable words.
  • Have you eliminated unnecessary legalese? If there is a common alternative to a legal expression, use it. Don’t write in legalese. And never write in Latin.
  • Are there footnotes that can be moved into the text or omitted entirely? Sometimes a footnote contains an afterthought that detracts from the body of your text. These can be deleted. On other occasions, a footnote might be so material that it should be moved into the text.
  • Is your meaning clear? If your meaning isn’t clear, edit until it is. Often, complicated writing is not a sign of brilliance but muddled thinking.

4. Edit for Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation

  • Did you check for grammar and usage errors? Good writers care about grammar and usage. Find a grammar guide you like and keep it handy. Know your grammar weaknesses, so you can spot probable issues just like you engaged in issue-spotting on law exams. When you are uncertain, look up the rule.
  • Have you examined each sentence for subject-verb agreement? This is a grammar error so common to legal writing that you should check for it every time. Singular subjects require singular verbs; plural subjects require plural verbs.
  • Have you relied too much on the passive voice? If so, rewrite. If you aren’t good at spotting the passive voice, look up the rule and become familiar with it, or practice with a grammar editor like Hemingway Editor.
  • Is your use of contractions stylistically proper, given the type of writing? In legal writing, contractions often seem too informal. Rather than writing don’t, write do not.

5. Make The Final Checks

  • Are the headings numbered correctly?
  • Are acronyms defined?
  • Are long quotations properly indented?
  • Are the parties referred to in the same way throughout the brief?
  • When referring to the parties, have you used proper form of singular, plural, and possessive, e.g., plaintiffplaintiffsplaintiff’s, plaintiffs’?

After You Edit, Finish by Proofreading

Proofreading is the last step you take before your document is finished. It’s not editing, exactly, but can be viewed as part of the editing process.

The primary goal in proofreading is to look for typographical and spelling errors. If you want perfection, proofread not once but twice, the second time reading backwards from beginning to end. This will help you isolate each word in your mind apart from its use in a sentence, forcing you to actually see the word.

After going through the checklist, you will have a document that you can be confident to hand to any judge, client, or opposing counsel.

Originally published 2015-04-20. Last updated 2016-04-15.

Featured image: “Vintage typewriter and a blank sheet of paper, retouching retro” from Shutterstock.

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