The Importance of Editing and Proof-Reading

You’ve drafted a client piece – now what?

Heed the words of Samuel Johnson:  ‘What is written without effort is generally read without pleasure.’

In other words, go back and edit; your text could always use some polishing.

Here are some specific tips.

  • sleep on it – you will spot things the next morning that were not apparent the night before, especially if the midnight oil was burning (typos, spelling and grammar errors, stylistic things)
  • get a second opinion – this will help with correctness, readability, errors you just aren’t seeing because you’re too familiar with your text (even after sleeping on it)
  • translate – is it in plain English that a businessperson would understand or Latinate, jargon-ridden legalese? if it’s in the latter, you need to change that
  • watch for repetition – is there a way to avoid using the same word or phrase excessively, but without making it look as though you are straining to find alternatives?
  • check the flow – do the paragraphs or sections follow each other logically, with nice transitions? or do you need some headings to impose order?
  • visual appeal – can you break up the text? (shorter paragraphs, headings, bullet points, graphics)
  • wield the axe – remember Blaise Pascal’s famous line: ‘I would have made this shorter, but did not have the time’ (or as the kids now say, ‘TL; DR’)
  • paranoia check – have you said anything about a client, or about an issue that a client might object to? had the piece vetted for correctness? checked names, titles, facts, quotations and citations (if any)?
  • print it off – proof-reading is more effective from a hard copy than on the screen
  • read it aloud – this will reveal incoherencies, overly long sentences, convoluted phrasing and clunky style in a way that reading silently to yourself will not
  • read it backwards – an old proof-reading technique; effective because it counteracts your brain’s tendency to make your eyes gloss over errors
  • don’t rely on spell-check – it misses things and makes silent corrections (tortuous appears in a million legal documents where tortious was intended; form for from is another frequently missed error)*
  • make sure you proof-read everything – including the title, headings and author information (errors can occur where you don’t think to look for them, and it’s embarrassing to have an obvious mistake in the first things people look at (like your name))
  • sleep on it again
  • run it by a second pair of eyes for final review

Next time: words that don’t mean what you think they do

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)


  1. No reasonable lawyer could disagree with Neil’s advice. I love WordRake as an editing assistant. WordRake suggests four changes, each of which I would make.

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