On editing.

Author:van Patten, Jonathan K.
Position:In the writing process

    Editing is an essential part of the writing process. For virtually all writing of merit, the finished product does not appear at its inception. (1) As a "work in progress," the writing goes through stages, and the editorial stage will help trim and sharpen the final piece. The process may be compared more to the creation of an oil painting, which may have several layers of pigment and translucent glazes to produce the final effect. (2) Revision begins during composition with, for example, an automatic spell checker or through self-correction by the writer as the piece takes shape. The process of editing, however, is different than the work of composing. Editing involves an outside perspective that brings focus and clarification to the work. It requires a different mindset, even when the editor is also the author of the piece.

    When editing, it is important to keep in mind basic compositional principles, (3) as well as additional principles relating specifically to editing. The following description of these principles is, for the most part, not original. It is useful to review them together and to reflect on why they work. Editing strengthens the composition by requiring the author to account for certain essential principles that may have been overlooked during the creation process.

    This Article is intended for use by authors and editors in all settings. Because an author of any piece is, by necessity, the first editor, many of these suggestions are best implemented before the piece receives an outside review. This Article focuses on specific issues for brief editors and law review editors. While some of the propositions that follow are also applicable to composition, they bear repetition here because of their importance to the practice of editing. (4) These principles will take on additional meaning because the editorial process has a different viewpoint and purpose.


    1. The Paragraph is the Unit of Composition.

      This is the essential proposition for legal writing. It comes from Strunk & White's The Elements of Style (5). The paragraph as the basic unit of composition is an assertion about the proper size of the unit. The unit is not, as some might maintain, the word or the sentence. Those are important objects of study, but for composition, it is the paragraph that constitutes the basic unit. The paragraph is the right size for thinking about composition. It forces the writer to think about the problems of proposition, support, transition, and sequence in the most productive way.

      If the paragraph is the basic unit, it must be about one thing. As an editor (and as a writer), you should be able to look at a paragraph and summarize it in a single sentence. If you cannot, it is likely that the paragraph is about nothing, or about more than one thing. The paragraph has "stuff' in it, but it does not have a clearly discernable single purpose. Making the paragraph about one thing will force more disciplined writing. Most often, what the paragraph is about may be found in the first sentence--the topic sentence. (6) It is not an absolute requirement for persuasive writing that the topic sentence be in the first position in the paragraph, but you should have a very good reason for departing from this norm. Legal writing is more purpose driven than most other writing. To persuade, you should not leave the purpose of the paragraph until the end or, worse, hide it in the middle. The shape of the basic paragraph is: (1) proposition; (2) supporting sentences that explain, elaborate, or develop; and (3) summary, restatement, closure, or a conclusion that leads to the next proposition.

      Each paragraph has a proposition, a statement with an attitude. Legal writing, whether in the form of a brief, law review article, research memo, or opinion letter, should move forward through a series of propositions. The propositions form the structure of the argument. This used to be called an outline. It is still not a bad way to think about structure. A true outline is not just a collection of topics, talking points, or quotes, but, instead, a coherent sequence of propositions that takes the argument through each step. A proposition is not simply a statement. It is a statement that pushes the argument forward. It is more than description. Description is essential to argument, but it is not advocacy. A good proposition involves advocacy. You do not have to "pound the table" with each proposition, but propositions should not be neutral, even with the less-argumentative forms of writing, such as legal memoranda or law review articles. Thinking through your writing as a series of propositions will greatly aid the composition process.

      Not only is "the paragraph is the unit of composition" fundamental for composition, it is by far the most useful diagnostic tool for editing. The paragraph method of analysis will expose most of the structural problems that undermine the draft. To do the paragraph/proposition method of analysis, you should number each paragraph and then, on a separate sheet, write out a sentence that summarizes each paragraph. You may have to create the sentence rather than copying the topic sentence given by the author. That, alone, will tell you something about what needs to be done. When you have finished the section, or the entire piece, look at the succession of sentences. This review helps you to see structural problems, such as gaps or sequence issues. It will also make the argument more transparent. Your insistence on viewing the piece at the paragraph level will force you (and the author) to think in terms of propositions and how to fill out each proposition. And you will now have something concrete to go to the author and make specific suggestions about structure. This approach is far better than opaque or non-specific comments like "unclear," "awkward," or "this doesn't flow."

      Thinking in terms of a series of propositions also helps to regulate the tone for the piece. Beginning authors rarely get this right the first time. For briefs, the tone of the propositions tends to be too neutral or too adversarial. You will see this tendency, possibly even more clearly than the author, and you should dial the tone up or down accordingly. When I was a newly minted lawyer, one of the best pieces of feedback I received was that my briefs read more like law review articles, i.e., it was hard to tell whose side I was on. For a brief, the reader should not have to guess. On the other side, however, if the brief is so relentlessly adversarial in its propositions, it may generate resistance on the part of the reader. Litigated matters are not that easy. As my mentor, the late Robert Willard, would say, "It's a full and complete statement of half of the problem." Overselling, by claiming too much and ignoring problems from the other side, generates sales resistance.

      Following the paragraph method of editorial analysis is time-consuming. But that is a good thing. Deliberately slowing down the editorial process will allow the editor to see more things that need attention. (7) Substantively and procedurally, the paragraph is the right size unit for thinking about editing.

    2. The Editor's Job Requires Vigilance to Strike Out Unnecessary Words.

      The authoritative source for this, again, is Strunk & White: "Omit needless words." (8) Simple advice, this is probably the second most important proposition in editing. Trim, trim, and trim. Crossing out unnecessary words is the editor's primary tool. Stephen King reiterates this advice in his book On Writing and offers the following formula:

      In the spring of my senior year at Lisbon High ... I got a scribbled comment that changed the way I rewrote my fiction once and forever. Jotted below the machine-generated signature of the editor was this mot: "Not bad, but PUFFY. You need to revise for length. Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft--10%. Good luck." I wish I could remember who wrote that note ... Whoever it was did me a hell of a favor. I copied the formula out on a piece of shirt-cardboard and taped it to the wall beside my typewriter. Good things started to happen for me shortly after. (9) The second draft is the first draft less ten percent. This is a great formula for all writers to live by. First drafts always have too many words. (10) Inexperienced writers use too many words. Lawyers generally use too many words. Inexperienced lawyers? Watch out. For legal writing, I would suggest amending King's nameless editor's advice to twenty or twenty-five percent.

      Most writing can be made better simply by striking out unnecessary words. There are several reasons why drafts are usually "puffy." The basic reason is that nearly everyone overdoes it on the first few drafts. There is wisdom in the famous line, attributed to several authors: "I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead." (11) The natural tendency is to overwrite.

      The first task of the editor is to trim off the natural "fat" by simply crossing out. Bryan Garner describes the problem in this way:

      The English language has vast potential for verbosity. Almost any writer can turn a 15-word sentence into a 20-word sentence that says the same thing. Many writers could make it a 30-word sentence. And a truly skilled verbiage producer could make it 40 words without changing the meaning. In fact, almost all writers unconsciously lengthen their sentences in this way. Reversing this process is a rare art, especially when you're working with your own prose. You see, you're likely to produce first drafts that are middllingly verbose--each sentence being probably a quarter or so longer than it might be. If you know this, and even expect it, you'll be much less wedded to your first draft. You'll have developed the critical sense needed to combat verbosity. (12) Awareness of wordiness is an important insight for both writer and editor. It will make the writer more amenable to...

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