Monday, January 23, 2012
How do mistakes make it past even the most careful writer's eyes? Thinking about how that happens is the key to discovering editing techniques to prevent it in briefs.
Writers often can edit others' work much more thoroughly than their own -- probably because committing something to memory happens quickly after writing it down. Mistakes often arise from this problem of memory.
Once text lodges in the author's memory, his eyes may focus on the brief, but they don't really see, read or criticize its content. The brain remembers what it thought the document said or projects what it intended the document to say. Unless the text sounds odd inside the theater of the mind, the writer does not slow down to spot problems in the text. As a result, the prose is not as good as the writer thought it was, and the brief does not actually say what the lawyer thought it said.
. . . .
1. Slow down. When it comes to editing, fast and good are mutually exclusive. Hurrying or skimming means not editing well.
2. Start early. To slow down, counsel must begin editing long before the brief is due. This means completing the drafting long before the deadline. Few lawyers practice this way. But this may explain why so much legal writing is garbage
3. Edit from a printed copy. Screen reading encourages skimming, and skimming encourages missed errors. See rule No. 1, and slow down.
4. Go somewhere else. There's something about getting up from the desk and going to the library or the park that frees the brain to focus differently. This also requires stepping away from the computer.
5. Edit standing up. Editing is a particularly good time to use a stand-up desk or counter. The brain is more awake when the body is upright. And when the body is tired of standing, the brain needs a rest, too.
6. Read out loud. I mean it. Literally read out loud. Doing this prevents a writer from overlooking awkward syntax or run-on sentences. Stumbling over the words or needing to take a breath mid-sentence means it's time to rewrite.
7. Edit the first sentence of each paragraph. Crafting these first sentences perfectly and putting them in the right order lays a solid foundation for the entire brief and frames a sturdy structure for paragraphs. A judge reading on screen may not read much more than those topic sentences anyway.
8. Read backward. The secretary for one of my blog readers literally reads the brief from back to front. I don't know if I could do this, but I use a version of the technique, editing the paragraphs in reverse order or from last paragraph to first. This forces me to slow down and read, and it prevents me from relying on memory.
9. Mark the beginnings and ends of sentences. These visual marks will reveal whether the brief has grown monotonous by, for example, having too many sentences of the same length. The marks also will reveal that sentence that seems to go on forever, barely giving the reader a chance to breathe, tempting the judge to go back onto Facebook or LOL Cats or something -- anything -- more interesting than that brief about the rules of statutory construction -- z-z-z-z-z-z.
10. Circle subjects and verbs. Are sentence subjects near the beginning of sentences, or do lengthy, preparatory clauses obscure them? Are the subjects near the verbs through which they are acting, or do lengthy parenthetical clauses derail the train of thought? Are the subjects doing the acting, or has the document lapsed into passive voice? Circling subjects and verbs helps to banish all of these problems and enhance clarity.
11. Give it to someone else. Famous authors such as Philip Roth and Jonathan Franzen need editors and proofreaders. Attorneys do, too. Every firm has that one fantastic proofreader, and everyone knows who that is. The very last thing before filing, counsel should give that person the brief. This stellar proofreader has not memorized the brief and probably doesn't know the case. If he or she thinks the brief is clear, then it really is. If he or she doesn't get it, then work remains to be done.
Hat tip to Law.com.