Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Commandment #2--Proofreading and Spell-checking

Commandment #2--Thou shalt proofread, use spell-check (but not rely exclusively on it), and proofread some more

Proofreading is vital to good written advocacy. You should be proofreading in two separate phases. The first phase should be a macro-level proofread where you look for large-scale problems including organization, flow, and clarity. During the first reading, you should be checking to ensure that your writing is not disjointed, that your paragraphs and sentences flow logically, and that legal principles are clearly and thoroughly outlined and analyzed.

In the second phase, you should be performing micro-editing, looking for smaller details such as proper grammar, syntax, word usage, and sentence structure. Avoid the temptation to combine the micro and macro phases. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to review for content and detail simultaneously.  If you try, you’ll inevitably overlook various problems with both.  Of course, if you find obvious grammatical or other micro mistakes during the macro proofreading stage, you should go ahead and fix them. 

I’ve talked before about good proofreading practices, but as a reminder:

-put the document away for as long as possible before you try to proofread it
-proofread on paper, as opposed to a computer screen
-give yourself time to proofread—thorough, careful proofreading takes a long time
-read the document out loud—you’d be amazed how proofspeaking will help you catch errors
-enlist the help of a colleague—When I practiced, I read numerous briefs for other attorneys and offered both macro and micro suggestions

Spell-check is a very important tool. But you can’t rely on it as your sole method of proofreading. Spell-check often won’t catch errors in words in ALL CAPS (I frequently see BREIFS), doesn’t recognize many legal terms (tortious, for example), and can’t help you recognize typos that are words (guaranty and guarantee, for example).

That said, there is no reason not to use spell-check. I rarely draft a document more than a page in length that doesn’t contain at least one spelling error—the type of error that spell-check will catch. Spelling errors scream sloppiness. It’s difficult for judges to trust the substantive points in documents replete with spelling errors, so you should always spell-check your documents. In using spell-check, keep these points in mind:

-turn off or be careful with “auto correct” features (for a horror story, see my sea sponge story, here)
-add frequently used legal terms to your spell-check dictionary
-double check short, frequently used words like is, it, and if; of, or, and on; and to and do

Proofreading is a very important part of legal drafting. Follow good proofreading practices to improve your writing.

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