Oregon State Bar Bulletin — DECEMBER 2006

The Legal Writer
Perfect Proofing: 10 steps towards error-free documents
By Suzanne E. Rowe

Even after a legal document is written, revised and edited, it’s still not finished. A final document must be subjected to perfect proofing before it can be filed with a court, mailed to a client or handed to a supervisor. This final step is mechanical and sometimes tedious, but it’s crucial to producing a professional document. The following proofreading tips take just a little time, and only some make you look silly.

Click on "print"
First, you must print the document. Proofing is almost always more effective when looking at a piece of paper than when staring at a computer screen.

Slow down and look silly
The next three techniques make you look silly, but they work because they slow you down. When you proof a document quickly, your eyes fill in words that you left out and your brain cuts long sentences into manageable bits of information. Reading slowly helps you see what you actually wrote, rather than what you meant to write.

Reading the document aloud slows you down enough to catch missing words. Reading aloud also shows you when sentences are too long because you’ll be gasping for breath before they end. Just close your door and no one will know that you’re talking to yourself again.

Reading the document backwards, sentence by sentence, allows you to focus on each sentence out of context. This technique will enable you to catch sentence fragments, typographical errors, misplaced modifiers and ambiguous pronouns. A former student reported years after graduation that he still was still using this technique. He was still getting strange looks from colleagues, but he was still writing clean documents.

Using a sheet of colored paper (or a ruler) keeps your eyes trained on a single line. Your eyes can’t bounce ahead to the next line, so you really see what each line of text says. Although lawyers do not usually play with colored paper while at work, changing the paper color will help keep you fresh throughout a long document. When you feel your eyes becoming accustomed to the blue, change to red. Surely you have colored paper lying around—just tear the cover off an old appellate brief.

Use spell check
Your word processor is a free editor, but many attorneys ignore its proofing capabilities. First, use spell check. Be sure to run every document through spell check one last time before printing the final version.

When using spell check, add to your computer’s dictionary any legal terms or client names that it does not recognize. This keeps the computer from repeatedly identifying these terms or names as mistakes. If the computer doesn’t know the spelling of Ms. Smythe’s name, it will underline every appearance of the name in the document as a mistake. You’re likely to ignore the underlining, even when you’ve misspelled her name. If you enter "Smythe" into the computer’s dictionary, when you misspell Ms. Smythe’s name as "Smyhte," the computer will identify only the mistake.

Use "find"
Because spell check is no more perfect than we are, use the "find" function (either "Ctrl+F" or "Apple+F") to locate words that you commonly misspell. Spell check will not notice or care that your brief on legislative intent suddenly mentions a "statue" instead of the "statute." I once was rather distracted reading an appellate argument based on the "public interest." The writer had left out the "l" in public, creating a perfect, but quite inappropriate word.

The find function can also help identify quirks in your writing. After a colleague pointed out that I had used the word "focus" on virtually every page of a manuscript, I found each instance of that word and changed it to a more descriptive verb. Now I always run a search for "focus" early in my proofing process.

Use grammar check
Use your computer’s grammar check, especially for minor points like subject-verb agreement. Often in revising text online we forget to change the singular verb after we’ve made the noun plural. For example, we find two new cases on point and change the sentence beginning "One court has held" to "Several courts has held."

Grammar check is only a tool, though, and sometimes it gives bad advice. The grammar checker with Word seems unsure about sentence fragments, often identifying perfectly good sentences as candidates for revision or skipping over a fragment as perfectly fine. Instead of blindly accepting each change suggested, consider the role of grammar check to raise queries that you revise or keep at your discretion.

Go for coffee
If possible, allow enough time in the writing process to rest between edits. Two short edits separated by a break are often more effective than one longer session. Just tell your colleagues that the trip to Starbucks will make you a better writer.

If your workload doesn’t allow for a coffee break, at least turn to another matter for a few minutes. When you shift gears back to the proofing project, you’ll read it with more distance and see more mistakes.

Edit bits
Concentrate on one aspect of the document at a time. First, check paragraph length. In general, paragraphs should average no longer than one-half page. That means you should have at least one paragraph break per page. Each paragraph break provides a short, visual vacation for your reader. He knows that he’s just finished a fascinating block of related information and is about to launch on another adventure. Nothing is more daunting than a full page of text with no breaks; it’s like a year with no vacation.

Read the document again for transitions between paragraphs. Does every paragraph tie to the previous one? Do you overuse the same transition, or do you provide a variety? Do your transitions really do what they purport? For example, simply writing "therefore" does not ensure that the information in the following paragraph will be the logical result of the previous ones. Note that merely repeating "First," "Next," "Then," and "Finally," in each argument is unlikely to help the reader see how these four ideas are related.

After reviewing your paragraphs, check on your sentence length. The average sentence should be 20 to 25 words in length. Often a sentence in that range will fit on two lines of 8½" by 11" paper. If you find your sentences going on for five or six lines, you likely need to break them into smaller units.

Start in the middle
To ensure that each part of the document has the benefit of fresh eyes and energy, start proofing sessions at different parts of the document. Begin proofing in the middle of the document, read to the end, and then continue from the beginning. Later in your proofreading, begin on the last page. That’s where attention generally lags, so it’s where the most mistakes pop up.

Highlight citations
Use a bright color to highlight citations in the document. (Everyone hates the Bluebook, so don’t use blue! Pick a happier color like pink, yellow or orange. Remember, it’s okay to look silly.) Then spend two editing sessions concentrating on citation substance and format.

Proof once just for citation content, ensuring that each citation is substantively correct. Does the page cited contain the necessary information? Is a signal needed to explain the weight of the authority provided by the citation? In moving text around, did you inadvertently create an ambiguous id. or other short cite?

Then proof the document again for citation format. Pay particular attention to spaces, underlining, abbreviations and other minutiae. Freed from the substance of the document and the content of the citation, you’ll be able to spot quickly the capitalization problem in "Or app." (For out-of- state readers, this reporter abbreviation should be "Or App" instead.)

Find a friend
Even the best proofreader is more likely to miss mistakes on her own work than on a colleague’s work. If possible, find a co-worker who can review your document for you. Some firms have a proofreading department. Some secretaries have made reputations for finding tiny, but embarrassing errors. If time allows, and a willing helper is available, pass your document to a new set of eyes.

After a few weeks, these proofreading techniques can become second nature. They’ll take less time, and they’ll help produce perfect documents.

Suzanne E. Rowe is an associate professor at the University of Oregon School of Law, where she directs the Legal Research and Writing Program. You may contact her at srowe@law. uoregon.edu.

Suzanne E. Rowe is an associate professor at the University of Oregon School of Law, where she directs the Legal Research and Writing Program. You may contact her at srowe@law. uoregon.edu.

© 2006 Suzanne E. Rowe

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