Saturday, October 14, 2017
Have you heard the secret to being a brilliant writer—appellate or otherwise? Because there is one. An ancient trick used by all the greats, from Justice Kagan to Stephen King. Use this device, and your writing will improve tenfold overnight. And it’s so simple: just edit well. That’s it. Learn to edit well and your writing will be better than you thought possible.
Now, let me be clear: I’m not talking about the quick proofread you do before sending a motion to the partner. I’m not talking about your 5-minute scan for typos, or your last-minute cite-check. I’m talking about strategic, measured, science-based editing.
Before we get to the how, let’s talk about the why. Psychology tells us a lot about why you might not be editing right. One insight is that our mind is easily overwhelmed when we try to do too much at once. And that counts for editing, too. So if you try to edit for too much, too fast, your “working memory” gets overloaded and you miss things. You need a strategy for breaking up your editing into chunks, or phases, to make sure that you get all the important stuff in.
Another insight from the world of psychology is that we know more about good writing in the abstract than we ever put into practice. For example, studies show that incoming 1Ls know a good deal about grammar rules—but that they fail to incorporate much of this knowledge in their writing projects. Lawyers are no different. So you need a strategy for taking these writing tools that you know in theory (or will pick up in the future) and incorporating them into everyday writing habits that you will actually use.
Finally, let’s talk about bias. You’re biased; I’m biased; we’re all biased. The best you can do is become aware of your biases and use some strategies to counter them. Two biases that plague us lawyers are advocacy bias and what I call trench bias. Advocacy bias you probably know: it’s that growing certainty that your client, or your position, is right. That inability to see the value in the other side’s arguments. This sort of bias is insidious, and you must counter it to be a good lawyer.
Trench bias can be just as bad: it’s the bias you get when you’re fighting in the trenches and lose sight of the battlefield. It’s the bias that comes from being steeped in the same case, the same facts, the same law for months. With this bias in force, your writing is full of jargon. You forget to give your reader enough context or background so that they understand where you are and where you’re going. Even the best lawyers struggle with this.
To sum up: (1) you need to force yourself to break editing sessions into manageable chunks; (2) you need to not merely learn new writing moves, you need to turn them into habit; and (3) you need to counter your biases. I have good news. With a few simple editing habits, you can handle these challenges and more.
First, check the box.
If you want to edit well, checklists are a must. Good writers edit for tons of writing moves before they send a document out the door. Not just the easy ones, like passive voice—but things like transitions, sentence balance, sentence length, concrete verbs, and much, much more. There is simply no way to track all of this without a checklist. Especially when you pick up new writing moves. Say you’re reading a brief and say to yourself “Wow! I love the way he uses short, pithy sentences to end his sections.” Now fast-forward a week later. You’re working late on a brief. You’re stressed and tired. Do you think you’ll remember to try out that new short-sentence idea? Probably not. But if you put it on a checklist that you run through before finalizing your document, you will.
And when you create your checklist, make sure that you separate your editing into multiple phases. Again, trying to edit for too many things simultaneously isn’t manageable. So edit for a handful of moves at each sitting. Perhaps on your first edit look for substantive problems such as a fact you forgot to explain or an unsupported rule. On your next editing round, you can hit big-picture style points such as ensuring you have roadmaps and transitions. The order doesn’t really matter; what matters is that you are breaking up your editing into manageable bites.
Second, 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! Get in the habit of leaving your writing for a couple days (or whatever you can manage) and coming back to it later. There is simply no other way to get out of the trench bias and see your writing with fresh eyes. Accountability partners are great for this: wrap up a document and send it to a friend, asking them to take a look and send it back to you in a couple days for your next edit.
Third, use others to get that “fresh-reader” feel.
No checklist can spot everything, though. So find some good writers to be your editing buddies. And I suggest you have them edit for you in a particular way, what I call “one-read” editing. The quality of editors varies, and good chance you won’t agree with many of their recommendations. Not to mention that many an office friendship has been lost over editing quarrels. So instead of asking for substantive or style edits, tell them to put a star next to any (1) word, (2) sentence, or (3) paragraph that they had to read more than once.
This will give you a true snapshot of your document’s readability. With the road bumps identified, you can now use your own writing tools to smooth them over.
Finally, discover your own editing likes.
Great writers all have their own editing tricks, and you might find that some of them work for you, too. Stephen King suggests that you vomit out a first draft without self-editing much, so you can stay focused on the content. Many writers swear by reading drafts out loud and editing their writing in paper form. Some warm up by typing out a few sentences from their favorite authors. A couple studies showed that setting aside time to practice editing helps (either on your own past work or on any writing you can find). Insightful technology tools can help you edit better, too, like Grammarly and Hemingway App.
And I think just about every writer would tell you that it’s essential to find good writing mentors to edit your work so that you can learn from their technique. But most important: just get out there and edit.
I am an adjunct professor of law at Loyola University School of Law, Chicago and an attorney at the firm of Sidley Austin, LLP. The views I express are solely my own and are not intended to be legal advice.