Denver Bar Association
February 2004
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Ruthless Editing: They'll thank you when it's over!

by Doug McQuiston

(Third in a series of articles on Legal Writing for The Docket)

There’s editing. Then, there’s ruthless editing. Editing must shorten, tighten, and clarify our writing. If it doesn’t hurt, it isn’t going deep enough. Why do we find it so difficult to edit our own work, or someone else’s? Ego involvement. Lawyers are good at giving criticism, but we aren’t too good at taking it. Self-criticism is even harder.

Well, get over yourself, pardner. There is no room for ego here. When kicking around these legal writing ideas with your associates, you must make clear to them well in advance that they need to be prepared for sharp criticism. The sharper the editing, the more your associates will be motivated by it, if only to reduce the pain of subsequent editing. Slowly, they will learn to take criticism without letting it affect the way they think about themselves.

To improve their writing when no one is looking over their shoulders, your associates must learn ruthless editing, leading to ruthless self-editing. Your criticism need not be as bitter as my (tor)mentor’s was, but blunt editing, as Martha Stewart might say, "is a good thing." Once they have been through it with you a few times, they will learn how to do it themselves. It’s how we get better.

Ruthless editing doesn’t necessarily have to be painful, but it often is. It involves cutting out huge chunks of stuff because it doesn’t fit, doesn’t work, or repeats something already better said, even if you really loved the way it sounded the second time around. Elmore Leonard, the famous detective thriller writer, was once asked how he wrote such taut, fast-paced thrillers. He said, "I try to leave out the parts people skip." Easy to say. Awfully hard to do.

If you have read this far, you have probably decided that learning to write better is something you and your associates need to do. That makes you an "Instructor." Congratulations! Now, get ready to jump to the front of everyone’s you-know-what list, because you are the SOB

who is going to start tearing apart what they write. Here’s how you can soften the blow:

Have fun. The law can be dull. This program shouldn’t be.

Buy, then read, "Writing to Win," (Steven Stark, Broadway Books, New York, available at Amazon or Barnes and Noble.com). If your budget permits, you might buy several copies for your associates. It is a bit unorthodox, using examples from the worlds of advertising and journalism. It may make your lawyers’ powdered wigs itch a bit at first. But the more you think about it, a lot of our persuasive writing as lawyers is (or ought to be) similar to good copywriting.

Ground your course in the type of writing your audience does. Have your audience bring samples of their own writing and the writing of others, good and bad.

Pull samples, especially from your office’s Word templates and "form letters." Before you meet to discuss them, assign some of your lawyers to team up and take on one of these behemoths to make it shorter and better. Personal Injury releases are an excellent place to start. This not only will help your entire office improve the quality of its daily work product (by sprucing up a document you use every day), it is also a "victimless" way to practice ruthless editing. Because most of the form letters and other form documents in your office have no identifiable author (at least no one who will take credit), you all can feel free to gang up.

When critiquing samples brought in by the audience, tell them their work will be discussed in the group and painfully edited. Tell them to check their egos at the door, or they won’t have much fun and will learn nothing. Remind them the goal of the sessions is to take good writers and make them better. Editing is a critical part.

There is no piece of legal writing so good it can’t be improved, and none so bad as to be irredeemable. There is no document that cannot be made shorter.

In preparing for your first presentation, go over some examples of your own legal writing. What did you do well? What could you have done better? Carve it up. Cut it down. Take a 10-page deposition summary and make it five. Then, take the five--pager and make it two. Demonstrate this new

surgical skill on your own stuff in your presentation to get the ball rolling, so it won’t look like you’re just picking on everyone else.

Details matter. Depending on the experience level of your audience, you may need to spend time on sentence structure, grammar, active versus passive voice, storytelling skills or theme-building, even proofreading (not just "spellchecking"). If needed, change the course materials to fit your needs.

After the class, encourage your attorneys to write for outside publications, both legal and otherwise, for the fun of it. Nothing improves your legal writing quite like trying to do a good restaurant review in 600 words.

Consider scheduling a follow-up meeting a few months after this presentation, to kick over some new samples and discuss what everyone is doing differently.

The process of pulling apart and cutting down legal documents is one that can only be learned by practicing it. Before long, though, it will come so naturally to you and your associates that you will find yourselves cutting down even the most routine e-mail. You will discover your self-editing makes your writing style come to life. What you write will take half the time, because you will learn to edit as you type.

Next month: "The Four Questions"


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