Legal Writing and Revision

The other day I attended a lawyers' luncheon and somehow the conversation got around to writing motions and briefs (no, I didn't bring it up). One of the lawyers—a terrific trial lawyer—commented that she wished that she had time to revise her first drafts. She explained that most of her practice seemed to be fire control and once she got to the proverbial "Wherefore, upon these premises," she was on to her next conflagration. Before I could open my mouth, the table began to chirp with all kinds of "writing" remarks: "Ah Gawd, revising? I don't even know what the word means," "Ha! Revise? Why would you want to revise something that nobody is ever going to read?" and on and on. Frankly, I was surprised. I don't know that anything goes out my door without at least a half dozen revisions. Just last week I revised a one-page motion at least twelve times (we won the motion so it was worth it). I know of at least one appellate lawyer who says that she revises her briefs around 50 times before she's confident enough to file them.

There are relatively few sources that describe the revision process. Bryan Garner, in his book, Making Your Case, The Art of Persuading Judges, has two small pages devoted to revision. Here are a couple of his comments:

For the careful writer, the hardest thing after starting is stopping. Every read-through uncovers some needed change, and the job is never really done until the copy is wrested from the diligent author's grasp and sent off to the printer. Don't do all your revising on the computer. Some failings—for example, a missing connection in the argument or undue length—are more easily spotted in hard copy. At least one set of edits should be made on the printed page, pen in hand.

It's helpful to lay the draft aside for a time—perhaps a few days—between read-throughs. Distance often improves the writer's perspective. This means that the time you set aside for writing the brief should be ample.

The best source for seeing the need for revisions is Authors at Work. It contains copies of the writings and revisions of some of the great writers, such as Dylan Thomas and Charles Dickens.You can see that their first drafts were just more or less bunts; the revisionary work was where the real writing began. If you have the chance to pick up a copy (it was a limited edition), I suggest that you snap it up. It would be a boon to your next writing project—appellate brief or otherwise.

Photo Credit: David Axelrod