As we discussed in an earlier post, the first step of deep editing is sentence-level editing. In sentence-level editing, you should say each sentence aloud to cure clutter and grammatical errors and to edit for plain English. Now, let’s move on to the second step of deep editing—structural editing.
The craft of legal writing becomes an art through the masterful use of structure and structural editing is your most important and most challenging task. Remember the Three Essential Rules for Writing? Of these three rules, leading from the top is perhaps the most important rule. It is also the essential rule for structural editing.
First, Focus on the “Opening.”
Since the opening is the most important part of any paper, begin your structural edit by focusing on the opening.
- Does the paper “open” in the first page and a half? Or, better yet, the first paragraph?
- Does it begin by explaining the background story in two or three sentences? (Who are the players? How do they know each other? What went wrong?)
- Is the issue obvious from that background story? If not, have you spelled out the issue separately?
- Does the paper lead with a strong, confident conclusion? Have you stated that conclusion in plain English? Is there a separate heading that screams Conclusion or Answer so that the reader can find the conclusion easily?
- If the reader were to read only the opening, would the reader understand the paper?
Second,Work your Headings.
Next, pull your headings onto a single page to be sure that your legal argument flows logically and leads from the top. Remember that headings represent a higher layer of writing than the body of your paper, so you should proof them separately to be sure that they reveal a strong foundation.
- Does the paper lead with the most important arguments?
- Are the main points highlighted with Roman numerals or primary headings?
- Are subsidiary points identified by indented subheadings?
- Does each heading lead logically into the next heading?
- Are headings correctly numbered?
- Do the headings run from general to specific?
- Do the headings talk about people and events, rather than abstract legal theory?
Third, Review the “Body” of the Paper:
Next, turn to the body of the paper—the Analysis or the Argument. Again, use your outline, as captured in your headings, as the master document for proofing and fine-tuning the structure of your paper. If your outline is perfect, then the structural foundations of your paper are also sound.
- Does the Analysis or Argument support the conclusion?
- Does each section begin with an opening paragraph or sentence that summarizes the conclusion about that section in one sentence?
- Does each paragraph relate to its heading? (If not, create new headings.)
- Does each paragraph deal with only one topic? (If not, split the paragraphs.)
- Does each paragraph begin with a plain-English lead sentence that summarizes the paragraph?
- Does every sentence within that paragraph support that topic sentence?
- Does each sentence say something new? (Although the body of the paper must repeat information in the opening, once you are in the body of your paper, each sentence must say something new. Repetition slows the reader’s movement through the paper. Each sentence must add value and push the argument along.)
- Does the paper use signal phrases, such as for example, by contrast, similarly, again, or in particular to tell the reader the weight of a sentence? (But be careful to avoid beginning every sentence with a signal phrase or your sentences will sound formulaic.)
- Do the paragraphs and sentences flow from general to specific?
- Does the discussion of the case law clarify the “big picture” view of the research? Does it explain the weight of authority? The trends in the case law? The number of cases that address the issue?
- Does the paper discuss the facts and result of the cases?
And Finally …
Finally, have you made recommendations and told your reader what to do next?
Now we have talked about the first two steps of deep editing—sentence-level editing and structural editing. Next, we’ll talk about the final and funnest step of all. Synthesis! I can hardly wait! Stay tuned ….
P. S. My Book contains many more tips on writing.