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Editing: The alchemy of writing

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Editing

Have you heard the secret to being a brilliant writer? Because there is one. An ancient trick used by all the greats, from Aristotle 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 get all the important stuff in.

Another insight from the world of psychology is that we know more about good writing 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 most of this knowledge into their writing projects. Lawyers are no different. So you need a strategy for taking these writing tools that you know (or will pick up in the future) and incorporating them into your writing habits.

Finally, let’s talk about bias. You’re biased; I’m biased; we’re all biased. Don’t fight it, because you always will be. 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 have trouble with this bias.

To sum up:

  1. You need to not merely learn new writing moves, you need to turn them into habit;
  2. You need to force yourself to break editing sessions into manageable
    chunks; and
  3. You need to counter your biases.

But I have good news. With a few simple habits, you can handle these challenges and more.

First, check the box. You might be one of those people who hate making lists—fair enough, I do too. But 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 keep track of all this without a checklist.

This is particularly true when you pick up new writing moves. Say you’re reading a brief by an advocate like Jory Hoffman. You 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 at night on a brief that’s due soon. You’re stressed and tired. Do you think you’re going to remember to try out that new short-sentence idea? Probably not. But if you put it on a checklist that you make sure to run through before finalizing your document, you will.

And when you create your checklist, make sure that you separate your editing into multiple phases. As I already mentioned, trying to edit for too many different things simultaneously isn’t manageable. So edit for a handful of things 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.

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.

So instead of having them offer 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 snap-shot 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 too 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 folks warm up by typing out some writing from their favorite authors.

Insightful technology tools can help you edit better, such as Grammarly and Hemingway App. And I think just about every writer (including me) would tell you that it’s essential to find good writing mentors to edit your work so that you can learn from their editing technique. Most important of all, just get out there and edit.

Joe Regalia Joe Regalia clerked for several years in federal district courts and at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. These days he keeps his plate full as an adjunct law professor, an associate at the firm of Sidley Austin, and a frequent speaker and consultant on legal writing and legal test-taking.