Spring 2021, Vol. 40 No. 2
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May 18, 2015
Tips on Effective Editing
Editing can be the difference between a brief that gets read
and one that gets skimmed.
By Ashley Burkett
Mark Twain famously apologized for writing a long letter because he “didn’t have time” to
write a short one. In other words, Twain’s letter suffered from a lack of editing. As Twain’s
quip suggests, editing does require planning and can sometimes be time-consuming, but it
is nonetheless a critical step to ensure that a writer’s message is both clear and concise.
While clerking on one of the busiest appellate courts in the country, I saw firsthand the
importance of taking the time to carefully edit briefs. In short, editing can be the difference
between a brief that gets read and one that gets skimmed. Courts are simply too busy to
spend hours deciphering the meaning of any one brief. If a brief is wordy or unclear or,
worse, repetitious, the reader will be tempted only to skim through it. It is therefore
imperative that arguments be communicated clearly and, most important, concisely.
By taking the time to edit a brief, you will not only increase the chances that your brief will
be studied carefully but will also demonstrate to the court that you respect its time and
workload. The following five steps may be used as a guide for working through the editing
process from beginning to end.
1. Plan Ahead
The first—and most important—step is to plan ahead so that you have enough time to edit
your brief. In the ideal situation, the editing process begins after you have set the brief
aside for a few days. Turning your attention to other matters for two or three days will
allow you to approach the brief with a new perspective. Specifically, having some distance
will enable you to see the brief from a point of view similar to that of a judge or law clerk
reading it for the first time. That fresh perspective will help you better to evaluate whether
all the key facts are clearly set out, whether the reasoning of the brief is easy to follow, and
whether your main points stand out (or get lost in the details). It will also help you catch
more mistakes as you proofread because having some distance from the brief makes it
more likely that you will see what is actually on the page instead of what you think is
This cooling-off period is also a good time to let others review the brief—preferably, those
who are not mired in the details of the case, because their perspective will be most similar
to that of the court being introduced to the case for the first time. For that reason, their