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LRR&W Professors on Revision in MLW

2/15/10--Many writers edit their documents when they should be revising. As used in this column, "editing" means refining the presentation of a document in terms of paragraph breaks, run-on sentences, grammar, punctuation, spelling and the like. "Revising" entails evaluating the substance of the document to determine whether it achieves its purpose.

Do not edit when you need to revise
Write On
Published: February 15, 2010 in Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly
By E. Joan Blum, Mary Ann Chirba Martin, Elisabeth Keller and Judith B. Tracy

Write On provides guidance for attorneys on writing legal memoranda and briefs.

Many writers edit their documents when they should be revising. As used in this column, "editing" means refining the presentation of a document in terms of paragraph breaks, run-on sentences, grammar, punctuation, spelling and the like. "Revising" entails evaluating the substance of the document to determine whether it achieves its purpose.

Revising targets substance, while editing addresses presentation. In general, revision should precede editing. Word processing is an invaluable tool for writers, but the ease with which it allows you to make changes can seduce you into thinking that your document is finished before it is really done. Formatting commands allow you to produce a document with a clean and professional appearance, but this may camouflage substantive defects that still require revision.

To revise effectively, ask yourself the following questions:
• Is your analysis complete? Make sure that your document addresses all necessary components of the analysis or argument.
• Is your analysis accurate? Your document must be based on thorough research and a well-grounded understanding of the law and facts.
• Is your analysis clear? A document must be easy for the reader to understand.
• Are your assertions adequately supported? Mere citation is not enough; an effective document explains why and how the law supports each assertion. To achieve this goal, make liberal use of the word "because."
• Are the concepts stated precisely? Just because you know what you mean does not ensure that the reader does. Precision is crucial because the reader may lack the time or inclination to review the authority you cite. The reader is relying solely on you, so you cannot afford to be vague or otherwise imprecise. In short, you need to nail it.
• Are the concepts logically sequenced? Sequencing concepts in logical order allows the reader to identify the steps in your analysis or argument. If you accomplish this, the reader will not even know you have done it because each concept will flow logically from what precedes it. If you do not pull this off, the reader will hit a brick wall.
• Overall, is the document cohesive? A cohesive document shows the reader how concepts fit together. Explicitly connecting the steps in an analysis or argument is essential to effective and efficient communication.

At some point, revising flows naturally into editing. Ultimately, a document needs both. Some aspects of good writing, such as being concise and using transition words and phrases appropriately, are common goals of both revision and editing. In general, however, revising must precede editing; otherwise, you may waste time cleaning up a run-on sentence when the main problem is that the sentence misses the conceptual point. Similarly, checking agreement of pronouns and antecedents is crucial, but this will not cure a problem with your underlying legal analysis.

Finally, a good self-editor will always seize an opportunity to revise. Even when you have completed a thorough revision and are sure that you are ready to edit, take the opportunity to evaluate yet again whether your analysis or argument is complete, accurate, clear, precise, supported, logically sequenced and cohesive.

Producing an effective document is not a linear process - editing may reveal substantive flaws that you did not previously identify. Resist the temptation to stick with what you have written. Revise.            

The regular contributors to Write On, Julie Baker and Lisa Healy, look continually to improve their writing by sharing ideas and learning from different writing styles. This week they welcome guest columnists E. Joan Blum, Mary Ann Chirba Martin, Elisabeth Keller and Judith B. Tracy, associate professors of legal reasoning, research and writing at Boston College Law School.