Lawyers are known for overwriting. Perhaps it is all those cases from the 1800s we had to read in contracts class that lead us to write in needlessly ornate sentences. Perhaps too many of us remain convinced that piling on words makes us sound smarter (even though people who sprinkle long and complicated words into their sentences are actually perceived as less intelligent).
Whatever the cause, we often need help to make our writing leaner and cleaner.
Enter WordRake, which hopes to do exactly that. WordRake is a Microsoft Word and Microsoft Outlook add-on that proofs your writing and makes suggested changes. One key caveat: although you can’t really tell from the website, it is only for the Windows version of Word, and it won’t run on Office 365 if you only use 365 via your browser. The website makes no real mention of these limitations. In my case, I didn’t realize it until I downloaded the software. While Windows devotees may shrug off the lack of a Mac version, Wordrake’s lack of browser support is a significant limitation since Microsoft is pushing its users to the cloud.
WordRake works by going through and redlining your document, making semi-substantive editing suggestions, and correcting your typos.
After it “rakes” the document, you can decide which changes you want to keep and which to reject. Since the add-on works just like Word’s track-changes function, any lawyer who has ever received a marked-up document will intuitively know how to use it.
So how does WordRake perform in the real world? I fed it three different types of documents:
- A post about Justice Scalia’s dissents from Romer v. Evans through Obergefell v. Hodges, written for a non-lawyer audience.
- Justice Scalia’s dissent in Romer.
- A brief written for a state-level district court that was in draft form, but close to finished.
In my layperson Scalia post, WordRake did a good job getting rid of some of my congenital writing tics, such as using “that” when I don’t need to and overusing “essentially” and “basically.” I’d like to think I’d catch all those while proofreading, but I probably wouldn’t. On the downside, it really seemed to hate certain rhetorical flourishes. For example, it tried to change “Scalia’s statement pretends to be reasonable” to “Scalia’s statement is reasonable.” Those two things are not remotely the same.
When WordRake chewed through Scalia’s Romer dissent, it desperately wanted Scalia to stop saying “sort of.”
Finally, on my almost-finished brief, WordRake did a solid job of catching passive phrasing (“by the issuance of” was changed to the much better “issuing,” for example). It also spotted typos and removed intra-sentence redundancies. However, it still made some grammatical suggestions that utterly changed the meaning of the sentence. That is not a reason not to use the software. Given that you can accept or reject each change, you are free to ignore the suggestions that mangle your meaning.
WordRake is not cheap, coming in at $129 a year each for Word and Outlook, or $199 for both. There doesn’t seem to be a way to subscribe month-to-month, but there is a free 7-day trial. If you decide to go all out, volume discounts and enterprise licensing are available. If you usually work alone and feel like you need a second set of eyes, the $129 or $199 might be well worth it. If you routinely have a trusted colleague edit your writing, it may not be. Given that there is a free trial, it is certainly worth giving WordRake a whirl.