Writing seems to come naturally to some law students and lawyers, but it isn’t easy for all of us. You may have gone through a school system as a child that didn’t emphasize grammar as much, and your grasp of the grammar rules is not as strong as a result. Maybe your undergraduate major is in a field that didn’t require much writing, and you’ve had less opportunity to practice that skill. You could have a learning disability that makes writing more challenging. Perhaps English is not your first language – you may have excellent grammar skills in another language, but those rules don’t transfer to English. Or maybe you are like me – a first-generation college student and law student who didn’t always hear grammatically-correct language growing up, and you have to work past that initial instinct to write how you learned to talk.
Whatever the reasons for those grammar deficiencies, it can be hard to develop the grammar skills needed for effective legal writing. Unfortunately, there is no quick fix. Becoming a better writer requires significant practice, and the more you write the better you get. We also have a tendency to expect our first draft to be perfect. But much of what makes writing good happens in the editing process, and that is where you have an opportunity to work on your grammar as well.
It can be helpful to have some grammar resources as you edit, and there are a number of good online resources available. Here are some that would be particularly good for law students and lawyers:
Core Grammar for Lawyers: It’s possible your law school may require this resource for legal writing classes, but you can purchase it individually if it hasn’t been assigned. This resource presents grammar rules in a legal context and gives you the opportunity to practice what you are learning.
Common Errors in English Usage, by Professor Paul Brians: Although this website is not focused on legal writing, it provides a broad range of information about many common grammar and word usage errors in the English language.
Grammar Girl, by Mignon Fogarty: This website offers regular tips for improving your writing. It is not focused on legal writing.
Law Prose Blog, by Brian Garner: Brian Garner is one of the foremost experts on legal writing and grammar, and his blog provides daily tips for legal writing.
Purdue Online Writing Lab: Purdue University’s online writing lab has some great grammar resources, located under the “General Writing” tab. This website is not focused on legal writing though, and you should avoid tabs that are clearly directed to other fields of study (such as the “Research and Citation” tab).
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We’ve all had that experience—you drafted an assignment for a legal writing class or upper-level writing course, or maybe a project for a legal internship or job. When you got the assignment back from your professor or supervisor, it was covered in corrections and comments. The real question: What did you do next? If you were required to revise the assignment, you probably made the corrections and submitted the final version. But did you take any steps to learn from your mistakes so that you won’t repeat them in future assignments?
Successful law students and lawyers constantly strive to improve their writing. One of the best ways to improve your writing is to learn from past mistakes. But learning from mistakes requires some conscious effort—simply making corrections to an existing document is usually not enough to reinforce how you should approach your writing in the future. Instead, one way to learn from your mistakes is to create your own customized editing checklist. You may already have an editing checklist that a professor or supervisor has given you. If so, you should continue to use that checklist as well. The customized checklist should supplement any more general checklist, focusing on specific issues that you personally have had trouble with in the past.
Here are some tips for creating and using a customized editing checklist:
Divide a large piece of paper into five columns. At the top of each column, put one of the following headings: (a) grammar errors; (b) citation/Bluebook errors; (c) analytical issues; (4) writing style issues; and (5) formatting problems.
Pull out old assignments that contain corrections and comments from a professor or supervisor. Go through each of those assignments, placing each error in one of the five columns you’ve created. For example, maybe your professor commented that you improperly used a comma to separate two independent clauses. That issue would go in the “grammar errors” column. Maybe you find a comment about your analysis being too conclusory. You would place that feedback in the “analytical issues” column. Maybe you keep forgetting to italicize “Id.” Put that error in your citation/Bluebook errors column.
Each time that you see a comment or correction that relates to an issue you’ve already put in your checklist, add a star by that issue in the checklist. Making the same error multiple times is a sign that you want to focus on that issue more.
For grammar and citation errors in particular, look up the appropriate rule in a grammar guide or the Bluebook. Make a note of the proper rule(s) that relate to that issue, as well as where that rule is found. When you edit documents in the future, you will then have easy access to the rule as well as the cross-reference for where to find further information if necessary.
After completing a draft of a new assignment, use your customized checklist to make sure that you do not repeat old mistakes. Go through the paper focusing on one column at a time so that you don’t miss anything in the editing process.
As you get feedback on new assignments, go through the same process. Add any new editing issues to your checklist. Regularly update your checklist to reflect your editing priorities. And, as you improve your writing, analysis, and citations you may remove old issues that are no longer a problem for you.
Creating a customized editing checklist is one of the best ways to learn from your past mistakes so that you don’t repeat them. Take an intentional approach to your editing, and your legal writing will continue to improve more and more over time.