Self-editing—specifically the process of reviewing your legal writing before it is filed with the appellate court—can be accomplished in defined stages. At least, that is the approach championed by Wes Hendrix in his article “From Good to Great: The Four Stages of Effective Self-Editing.” The four stages advocate approaching legal editing like (1) a law clerk; (2) a logician; (3) an artist; and (4) a law-reviewer. We recommend reading the full article, but this blog post summarizes the main points of the four-stage model, and adds some additional insights on editing using this process.
The Law Clerk: Edit for Substance
In the first stage, Hendrix advocates reviewing your work like a law clerk. By this he means answering the question “Is everything that I have represented to the court accurate?” As a firm with former appellate law clerks, we have to agree. A clear expectation of a law clerk is the baseline of making sure one’s work for the judge is correct. Accuracy should also be a given in our briefing to the court as lawyers (not to mention our ethical responsibility of candor to the courts).
According to Hendrix, when you are reviewing as a law clerk and looking for accuracy, you should consider the following areas:
- Factual Accuracy: Are all the necessary facts included, with accurate record cites, in a way that does not overstate (or misrepresent) the record?
Legal Accuracy: Is all the relevant law presented to the court in an approachable way, with proper citations?
- Sensible, Supported Analysis: Have you given the court a sensible way forward, giving examples of how other courts have decided the issue?
- Responsiveness: Does the brief anticipate and respond to the other side’s arguments? Don’t leave the court with lingering questions.
- Alternative Arguments: Have you addressed alternative ways to rule, and given the court some leeway to rule in your favor using a different approach?
The Logician: Edit for Organization
At this stage, your review will answer the question, “Does the argument proceed in the most logical manner?” Hendrix recommends using the acronym CREACC, which stands for Conclusion, Rule, Explanation (of the rule), Application, Counter-argument, and Conclusion. Always check that your argument is cohesive and well-presented.
The Artist: Edit for Style
Edit through the artist’s lens to refine the paragraphs and sentences in the draft for clear communication of your argument. Hendrix’s article has the following advice:
- Use topic sentences;
- Keep sentences and paragraphs short (which in turn, should keep your brief, brief);
- Create visual diversity;
- Avoid block quotations;
- Do not bury your gems in parentheticals; and
- Mind the gaps, like large blocks of white space, dangling lines of text, etc.
Printing the draft out on paper can help this process. So can reading it aloud. Throughout this process, consistently ask yourself tough questions. Can I say the same thing in fewer words? Can I rephrase the block quote to present a more effective argument? Is each sentence, paragraph, and argument section “working” for me?
The Law-Reviewer: Edit for Usage and Mistakes
The last stage involves the review that many people start and end with: a simple check for grammatical errors and typos.
It may be useful to develop a checklist that helps you be on the lookout for common errors. We recommend developing your own internal list with a particular focus on mistakes that you yourself know you tend to make, but here are some suggestions to get you started:
- Perform spell check and fix words that do not look right;
- Check for typos that spell check will not catch (trail/trial, missing words, plural words where singular is appropriate);
- Define all abbreviations;
- Block quote long quotations (50 words or more) properly or rewrite;
- Refer to parties in the same way throughout;
- Use proper form of singular, plural, and possessive for parties (plaintiff v. plaintiffs v. plaintiff’s v. plaintiffs’);
- Begin proper nouns with capital letters;
- Use capitals consistently throughout (e.g., Court v. court);
- Add page numbers as necessary;
- Use font type (including footnotes, page numbers, and headers/footers) as proper and consistent based on court rules;
- Use correct font size (including footnotes, page numbers, and headers/footers);
- Use consistent headings (wording, bolding, complete sentences v. titles, proper capitalization, indented, etc.);
- Check that outlines are correct; numerals or letters are consistent;
- Put on widow/orphan control to avoid a hanging sentence on a page;
- Make justification consistent (e.g., left justified);
- Correct spacing – no odd spacing or gaps between words or sentences;
- Correct margins and follow court rules;
- Make indents consistent;
- Correct caption based on court;
- Create accurate signature block that reflects information in caption;
- Match attorney signature to the filing attorney; and
- Check accuracy of certificate of service or compliance.
Colorado’s appellate judges are busy! Don’t make their lives harder by skipping the crucial step of editing your work. Editing your appellate briefing and petitions before they are submitted to the court is worth the effort. Cleaning up your arguments and presenting them in the best way possible is good for your clients. And a polished brief helps gain credibility before the court. Hendrix’s model of the four stages of effective editing is a good way to think about all the moving pieces of this process and presents a nice way forward.
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