Of course, there will be the occasional legal writing assignment that you finish minutes before the deadline in a cold sweet. Amid the ever present time crunch of law school, being realistic about the time a legal writing assignment will take can be tough. But this post is about the good days, when you are on top of things and you have your legal writing assignment drafted with time to spare. What can you do to really polish your legal writing in the final hours?
The substantive law of a writing assignment can be grueling, but legal writing demands careful editing. Because of the subject-matter complexity and the multitude of technical elements, getting it all right can be daunting. The key to legal editing is to take multiple passes through your writing, focusing on a something different each time. Don’t try to review and edit all of the aspects of your assignment in one pass. Your law review or journal will have the legal editing process down to a fine art. For starters, follow these legal editing basics:
Prepare To Edit
If possible, take some time away from your assignment and come back to it with fresh eyes. Personally, I prefer to edit on a clean hard copy print out. It is too easy to slip into correcting page breaks or fixing your margins if you are editing on screen. Between each pass, enter your hard copy changes and start your next pass with another clean print out. Working on clean, hard copies helps to keep you focused without layers of editorial markings complicating your review.
First Pass: Legal Currency Check
Before moving on to more traditional editing, legal editing requires a currency check. Because the law is never static, part of perfecting your writing is ensuring you are still citing good law. Take one more pass through your case law, statutes, and other sources to ensure nothing has undermined your cited support (e.g., a case you rely on hasn’t been overruled).
Second Pass: Think Macro
In this pass, you are big picture editing. As you read through, don’t worry about comma placement and don’t crack your Bluebook. Hopefully your draft is well developed at this point, so this pass is substantive in a sense. You want to read your work with your audience in mind and see if you can do anything to make your argument stronger or your analysis crisper. On this read, do the following:
- Check your assignment instructions. If you were provided any rules or limits on your research or analysis, make sure your assignment complies. Likewise, take page or word limits very seriously. Some professors will not grade non-conforming assignments.
- Check your organization. Do you have clear descriptive headers? Are your arguments in the best order? Could breaking up sections into smaller paragraphs help? You can do a lot to improve your writing without changing any content through structural tweaks.
- Check for logic gaps. Especially when tackling a complex legal issue, it is easy to get too into the material and forget to connect all the dots. Make sure your argument or analysis is logically sound with helpful transitions that lead your reader to your conclusions.
- Check for proposition support. Make sure your propositions are adequately supported. Try not to get lost in the details, but most every proposition should have some support. Don’t worry about your citation formatting here, just get it substantively sound.
Third Pass: Think Micro
This pass focuses on the details. Whereas you were intentionally not looking at formatting and technical aspects before, only look at the details now. On this read, do the following things:
- Apply formatting guidelines. Were you provided precise formatting guidelines? If so, take the time to get it right. Don’t give away easy grade points because you didn’t indent properly.
- Check formatting consistency. Is your section numbering consistent throughout? Is there one space after all of your sentences? Check your margins, font, spacing, headers, page numbers, and footnote format for consistency.
- Check for textual consistency. Do you consistently refer to parties the same way? Did you introduce abbreviations with a spelled out version? Consistency will help your reader keep their focus on the substance.
- Eliminate legalese. If you can replace fancy legalese with plain language without sacrificing precision, do so. Latin phrases and legalese are hallmarks of bad, not good, legal writing.
- Re-check your Bluebooking. Give your citations another scrubbing. Be sure to apply the Bluebook Table T6 to your case names. Check every element of your citations. If you cite the same source more than once, check them against each other to make sure they are consistent. If you used id., supra, and infra, make sure they are all still correct in the final form.
- Check grammar and spelling. Clean up any grammar issues. Use your spell check function, but do so with caution – Word may not recognize even fairly standard legal terms.
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