Tuesday, June 4, 2019
After I was newly admitted to the bar, I was told attorneys “practice” law because we are always improving upon our craft. One way we improve our writing as lawyers is through feedback. Here are some suggestions for how to derive the most benefit from critiques of your writing.
1. Know the type of feedback you will be given.
The type of feedback you receive depends upon who is reviewing your work. Some are required to submit writing to supervisors for review. Others solicit input from staff, colleagues, or clients. Each of these readers will have different goals for evaluating your writing, which impacts the type of feedback they will give. For example, a supervising attorney may critique the junior attorney’s analysis, arguments, or adherence to office conventions. An administrative assistant may review a brief for grammatical and typographical errors. A colleague may suggest an alternative argument or way to improve the flow of the brief. A client may comment on the Statement of Facts or question legal points. If you are asking for feedback, make sure you tell the reviewer what type(s) you want. It is easier to use feedback to improve if you know what is coming.
2. Prepare yourself to receive feedback.
Expect the reviewer will say some (or a lot of) negative things about your writing. According to “How to Give and Receive Feedback at Work: The Psychology of Criticism,” by Courtney Seiter, our brains are wired to perceive criticism as a threat. While you may instinctively want to react to the critique in anger, defensiveness, or fear, remember the point of the feedback is to help you improve the present project and your future work. Be open-minded and willing to develop. Be grateful for the reviewer’s time and investment in you.
3. Process the feedback.
Read all the reviewer’s comments before you do anything. If you do not understand something, ask the reviewer for clarification. As a new attorney, I initially did not understand all the editing marks my supervising attorney used. Eventually, I became familiar with the commonly used proofreading marks and my boss’s unique annotations.
4. Use the feedback.
If the reviewer suggested changes to larger-scale matters, like organization or flow, make those changes first. Then, go line-by-line and attend to the smaller details. If the reviewer marked a mistake, look for it throughout the entire document. Do not assume the reviewer marked every instance of a particular error.
If you are on a tight time deadline, triage the feedback. Determine what are suggested improvements as opposed to corrections of errors. Fix the mistakes and improve as much as you can in the time you have available.
After you finish revising the document, process the feedback for the future. Notice where your biggest problems were. Make a note of them for when you are editing your own work in the future. Look up rules for the grammatical mistakes you made. Determine how to fix these mistakes in the future.
5. Follow up with your reviewer.
Thank your reviewer for the help. When processing the feedback for the future, if you felt overwhelmed by the amount of feedback, ask your reviewer to suggest one or two of the biggest areas for improvement. If your reviewer is your boss, ask her what you can do to make her job easier.
Amanda Sholtis teaches legal analysis and writing at Widener University Commonwealth Law School in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. You may contact her at [email protected].