Legal Writing Principle 9:
Edit smarter, edit harder, and achieve excellent results.
By Joe Regalia
Every great writer, legal or not, knows that the magic of writing happens in the editing. This is where you prune away the foliage to reveal the winning arguments within. But even though we know that editing is crucial, most of us don’t treat it like a real skill. We treat editing like proofreading.
If you're a screen editor you probably scroll through your document, reading along and correcting the occasional typo or clunky sentence that catches your eye. If you’re a print-it-out editor, you likely do the same thing just with a red pen in hand.
But simply scanning and spotting is about the least effective way to edit. Because your mind isn’t a computer; it can’t pick up every potential edit among the deluge of words. That truth is why—even after multiple rounds of editing—you still miss some real trash. And then later, looking back, you think: How could I have missed that?
To edit better, first train yourself to be a phase editor. The principle behind phase editing is that our minds are easily distracted, and editing is no different. If you try to edit for too much, too quickly, you will inevitably miss some good improvements. With phase editing, you break your process up into more manageable chunks, or phases. Each phase comes with a manageable list of related problems to check for.
Some phases I’ve seen great legal writers use:
- Phase 1: Fact section. Check for needless details to cut, informative headings, missing facts, etc.
- Phase 2: Substance. Check for missing arguments or counterarguments, rule or analysis sections to bolster, etc.
- Phase 3: Organization and flow. Check for transitions at the section and paragraph level, check headings, etc.
- Phase 4: Sentences. Check for sentence length, structure, variety, etc.
- Phase 5: Citations. Check for formatting, pin cites, etc.
And so on…
Phase editing works well with another editing must: A checklist. You don’t need to list out every potential edit. But a simple checklist that reminds you about the problems you care about most can focus your editing attention. Checklists are also an excellent way to remind yourself about new techniques that you want to try or bad habits that you want to break.
Another powerful technique is all about getting back to the basics: A set of simple tools that force you to focus on the five persistent readability problems that plague lawyers and their readers. I call it SPUPS for:
- Using the right words
SPUPS editing is a go-to framework for increasing readability along these five dimensions. Working in phases (passing through the document and editing for one letter at a time):
Sentences. Are they mostly on the shorter side (less than 20 words)? Are there any long sentences close to each other that will create too much drag? Do you include some variety in length every paragraph or so? Are there transitions linking each one?
Punctuation. Do you use punctuation properly throughout (a common mishap), and do you have some variety here, too?
Using the right words. Can you cut legalese? Can you replace or cut any long or complex words? Can you replace any bland verbs or nouns? Can you cut any descriptors?
Powerful Paragraphs. Are most of your paragraphs on the shorter side (usually 4-6 sentences is plenty)? Does the first sentence generally deliver a single, persuasive point that holds the paragraph together? Do your paragraphs transition?
Sections. Can you break up any big sections into smaller ones? Do your sections transition?
One-read editing is such a nifty editing technique both when editing your own writing and when asking others to edit for you. Here’s how it works: Instead of giving substantive or style feedback on a document, the editor simply circles every word that they read more than once, puts a check mark next to any sentence they read more than once, and draws a squiggly next to any section they have to reread.
The idea is that the editor is searching for the bumps in the road, not fixing them. This allows the editor to focus on pure fluency and leave the distracting how or why until later. A good one-read edit provides x-ray vision into your document—with highlights on all the weak areas. With the readability problems mapped out, you can now tackle them one at a time with all your writing tools.
Editing this way is fast and effective. You are much less likely to get caught up on particular types of edits or problems to the exclusion of others. Just as important, one-read editing diffuses the awkwardness that comes with editing someone else’s work. Instead of pushing your own style ideas (and let's be real, many people don’t take those suggestions well), you are merely showing the author where they lost their reader. There isn’t anything to argue about on that point. You got tripped up and had to reread something. So whatever they’re doing, they can probably do it better. The other benefit of this construct is that it encourages you and others to not just blindly follow edits from better writers, but to instead figure out how to fix what you’re doing wrong.
Red Flag Editing
Red Flag Editing is another great technique that involves using a list of red flag words, phrases, and other signals to focus your editing. Like one-read editing, you are using these tell-tale red flags to identify potential trouble spots. They won’t always be wrong, but they will often lead you to good edits. Some example red-flags include:
- Common throat-clearing words and cluttered phrases like “it is,” “there is,” “as such,” “the fact that,” “pursuant to,” “with regard to,” and so on. Generic filler words like “thing.”
- Prepositions like “of.”
- To-be verbs, which can often become concrete verbs.
- -ion words, which are often nominalizations that can become juicier verbs.
- -ing words, which are often wasted and wordy.
- Lists that can be broken up with bullets or numbers.
- Multiple nouns one after the other.
- Any use of modifiers like “only.”
- Intensifiers (clearly, very, really).
By focusing on these red flags, you can force yourself to look at your writing through a more objective lens.
Other Tips for Editing Systematically
Here are a few additional tips you can bring to your editing practice.
- Resist the urge to purge. We all want to push a document out of our mind when we finish a first (or fifth) draft—resist the urge.
- Don’t self-edit until you’ve plotted out the key content.
- Keep an error list. It’s helpful to keep a running list of your common writing errors.
- Take time away to get the “fresh-reader” perspective.
- Use others to get the “fresh-reader” perspective.
- Edit backward.
- Find good writing mentors.
- Classic techniques like reading your legal writing out loud, writing sections separately, or printing everything out and editing at least once by hand.