Which explains my aptitude
Tactical choices in briefwriting

A lesson for editing

A few days ago, I posted this video on my other blog. Today it occurred to me that the video contains a lesson for legal writers. Watch the video, then read the lesson below.

If you’re like me, then you correctly counted the number of passes the white team made by focusing all your attention on that task. The cost of your focus was that you missed the moonwalking bear. But don’t feel bad about that—your task was to count the number of passes, not to keep a lookout for moonwalking bears. If you’d peeled your eyes for things like moonwalking bears, you could not possibly have correctly counted the number of passes.

Your brain is not wired to do both things at the same time. You can correctly count the number of passes the white team makes only if you focus all your attention on that task. But when you do that, you miss the moonwalking bear. You see the moonwalking bear only when you look for him and forget about counting the passes. Let’s call this “the moonwalking-bear phenomenon.”

What does this lesson have to do with legal writing? The lesson is to edit in stages, with each stage focusing on one task. Bryan Garner, for instance, recommends two levels of editing—a micro level and a macro level—with each level encompassing eight different tasks. That means 16 different editorial passes over the document, with each pass focused on one task.1

That sounds like a lot of work, and it is. But if the brief is important, then you’re probably going to proofread it 16 times anyway. And 16 focused proofreading sessions will likely be more effective than 16 unfocused sessions.
1 Bryan A. Garner, Legal Writing in Plain English 138–39 (2001). As an illustration, here are Garner’s Level One (micro level) edits:

  1. Cut or reword pointless legalisms.
  2. Convert be-verbs into stronger verbs.
  3. Convert passive voice into active voice unless there’s a good reason not to.
  4. Change –ion words into verbs when you can.
  5. Check every of to see whether it’s propping up a wordy construction. If so, rephrase.
  6. Check for misused words, faulty punctuation, and other mechanical problems.
  7. Try to cut each sentence by 25%.
  8. Read aloud, accenting the final word or phrase in each sentence. Does it read naturally?