Saturday, January 26, 2019
"My life needs editing."
For screen editors--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?
Everyone has their own editing rituals. And I'm not saying that you should ditch yours entirely. But I rarely meet a lawyer or law student who doesn't benefit from giving some more thought to their editing process--or better yet, adding a new technique or two.
To that end, I have four editing constructs for you to try. Each aims to focus and declutter your legal writing and catch more problems--even when you're distracted or busy.
But before getting to the four techniques, consider one that applies to them all: phase editing. 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 judges 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.
Now to the four techniques: (1) S.P.U.P.S., (2) one-read editing, (3) red-flag editing, and (4) content-word editing. We'll finish up with an assortment of other editing tips.
The first 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 lovingly call it S.P.U.P.S. (note the inclusion of "pups"--everyone likes puppies):
- Using the right words,
- Paragraphs, and
Read good legal writing and you'll see the same sentence patterns: mostly shorter, a sprinkling of very-short, and the occasional elegant-long. In other words: simple but elegant sentences with some variety sprinkled in for engagement.
And that variation goes for punctuation, too. You'll see a colon, em dash, or interesting comma structure in every paragraph or two. But never so much that the writing becomes dragged down by the switchbacks.
Turning to the words, you'll find masses of short, familiar, few-syllable words, like: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Indeed, Lincoln's speeches are famous for their short, familiar words. That's some of what made them so good.
When you zoom out to the paragraphs and sections, you'll spot thoughtful breaks at both levels. Paragraphs will be cut up so that each homes in on a single, cohesive idea. Same goes for the sections, but at a higher level.
So S.P.U.P.S. editing is a go-to framework for increasing your documents' readability along these five dimensions. Working in phases (passing through the document and editing for one letter at a time):
1. Sentences: Are they mostly on the shorter side (less than 20 words)? Are there any long sentences close to eachother that will create too much drag? Do you include some variety in length every paragraph or so? Are there transitions linking each one?
2. Punctuation: Do you use punctuation properly throughout (a common mishap), and do you have some variety here, too?
3. 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?
4. Powerful Paragraphs: Are most of your paragraphs on the shorter side (usually 4-6 sentence is plenty)? Does the first sentence generally deliver a single, persuasive point that holds the paragraph together? Do your paragraphs transition?
5. Sections: Can you break up any big sections into smaller ones? Do your sections transition?
Take this example from a federal habeas decision. Don't waste your time reading too closely. But we will see how a quick dose of SPUPS will focus on the key readability metrics to get this section into a better place:
By focusing on SPUPS we can drastically improve the readability here. We cut down long sentences and include some variety, use some engaging punctuation, replace stale or complex words with fresher ones, prune down our paragraphs to single ideas, and cut up the section:
2. One-Read Editing
This is such a nifty editing technique both when working on your own writing and when asking others to edit for you. In short, 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 one at a time with all your writing tools at the fore.
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 others' 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 clearer. The other benefit of this construct is that it encourages yourself and others to not just blindly follow edits from better writers, but to instead figure out how to fix what you're doing wrong.
3. Red-Flag Editing
This technique 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);
- Any of your own red flags that often signal clutter.
By focusing on these red flags, you can force yourself to look at your writing through a more objective lens. Take a look at how a markup of just a handful of red flags can signal areas in need of good editing:
4. Content-word editing
The final editing technique works on the smallest scale: your words. This technique has you pluck out the content words from your sentences--then start on a clean slate, rebuilding a new sentence with just those powerful words in hand. For a detailed walk-through on this technique, check out my past article here.
But the thrust of it is that you circle or underline just a few key content-words that you really want your reader to focus on. You jot those down and erase the old sentence. This forces you out of your normal writing pattern. Now you rewrite the sentence to focus your reader on the content that you care about.
So for an example:
Trouble is caused when people disobey rules that have been established for the safety of all.
We pluck those content words out: Trouble, disobey, and rules. Now we rewrite a sentence to focus in on that content alone, ensuring our reader will walk away with what we care about:
Rule-breakers cause trouble.
The subjects that are considered most important by students are those that have been shown to be useful to them after graduation.
Students think useful classes are the most important.
In our company there are wide-open opportunities for professional growth with a company that enjoys an enviable record for stability in the dynamic atmosphere of aerospace technology.
Our company provides opportunities for growth and stability in the dynamic field of aerospace technology.
Final Editing Tips to Try
- 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 coming back to your writing once more, later, even after you've convinced yourself it's done.
- Don’t self-edit until you've plotted out the content. Self-editing tends to shift your focus away from the substance. Focus on the substance and get it on the page. Then craft your prose.
- Keep an error list. It’s helpful to keep a running list of your common types of writing errors. Some writers always miss the difference between “it’s” and “its,” or they type “effect” when they mean “affect.” If you are consistently making an error, write it down. Then when you get to the editing stage, search for it using the find feature in your word processor. This way you’ll correct the error and develop the awareness required to permanently banish it from your drafts.
- Take time away to get the “fresh-reader” perspective. You cannot get into the right editing mindset unless you build in enough time before your writing deadlines so that you can set your document aside for a while (preferably at least a day) and come back to it.
- Use others to get the “fresh-reader” perspective. Nothing can spot errors you are missing like a truly fresh reader.
- Edit backward. This will stop you from skipping over things your brain expects to see.
- Find good writing mentors. To become the best you need to be around the best.
- The Classics. Read your legal writing out loud, write sections separately, or try printing everything out and editing at least once by hand.
Joe Regalia teaches at Loyola University School of Law and practices at King & Spalding LLP in Chicago. The views he expresses here are solely his own and not intended to be legal advice. Check out his other articles here.