Document creation consumes a significant portion of every lawyer’s time regardless of practice area—up to 60% of lawyer time is spent drafting and polishing documents. Even after the words are written, proofreading and editing can drag on for hours—and sometimes errors still slip through the cracks.
Less time spent revising and refining documents translates to more time spent on high-value, substantive work. Here are 10 strategies to make proofreading and editing your legal documents more effective.
1. Let Your Document Sit.
It can be hard to step away from your work if you’re “in the zone.” But if you’ve been working on the same document for hours or days, it’ll become harder for you to notice mistakes. So if time permits, set aside your work to gain distance. Taking breaks could help get a fresh perspective.
If you’re on a tight deadline, even letting your document sit for 15 minutes will help. But if you have time to spare, it’s best to leave it overnight. When you come back to your work, you will see it with fresh eyes and renewed attention.
2. Look for a Quiet Place to Work
For editing, concentration is crucial. This means you must work in a quiet spot where you can avoid distractions. Background noise can make it hard to concentrate—especially if you’re working from home with kids or if a partner or colleague is having a conversation in the same room.
Find a quiet place away from your phone and without access to the internet. Disconnecting helps you resist the temptation to check for email and avoids distracting notifications that steal your focus.
3. Review Your Draft in Stages
Approach each proofreading and editing task separately. Start with structural editing by assessing the clarity of your message and overall flow. At this stage, you’re free to make significant changes by adding, moving, or deleting sections of text.
The next step is line editing, where you focus on revising each line to communicate your ideas clearly. Do it step by step: check for spelling, sentence structure, word choice, punctuation, and so on. If you try to identify and fix too much at once, you risk losing focus, and your review will be less effective.
After line editing, you can proceed with copy editing. This step involves polishing your sentences to ensure correct grammar and syntax. The last stage is proofreading, where you carefully check for remaining errors like misspelled words or misused punctuation.
4. Read Your Text Aloud
Reading your paper out loud is a helpful step in the editing process. Reading aloud forces you to say each word and listen to how the words sound. It can help you notice missing words, run-on sentences, and awkward transitions. Hearing your text spoken helps you discern when something doesn't sound right—even if it’s grammatically correct—so you can make adjustments. You can try letting Microsoft Word read your text out loud to you. (The robotic voice will make your words feel unfamiliar, which will help you notice mistakes.)
Reading aloud is more effective than reading silently to yourself because when you read silently, you tend to skip over errors, fill in words, or make unconscious corrections.
5. Take Regular Breaks from Editing
It’s tough to maintain focus on detail-oriented work for more than 30 minutes at a time. Schedule breaks before your attention wanes. Staying too focused on your piece will make it harder for your brain to spot errors.
Stepping away can also help you be more analytical and less emotionally attached to your draft. That way, it’s easier to see what you can improve.
6. Track Your Editing Progress
You can save time and avoid re-evaluating text you’ve already reviewed by using a blank sheet of paper to cover any text that you haven’t reviewed yet. This keeps your eyes from wandering and your attention from shifting. Circle confirmed punctuation edits or place checkmarks next to paragraphs you’ve checked to see your progress and avoid accidentally repeating the work. Besides helping you track progress, interacting with the text helps keep you engaged as you edit.
7. Change Your Text Formatting
It's hard to notice errors when you’re staring at your draft from a bright computer screen. When you’re looking at the same document, in the same font, in the same location, in the same context, your mind starts to merge those familiar experiences, which prevents you from catching mistakes. To see the errors, you need a new perspective. Change things up. If your review is focused on substance, try changing the size, spacing, color, or style of the text so it feels different.
8. Review Headings Separately
Rather than reading your document exactly as it appears on the page, try approaching it another way. Review headings and subheadings separately from the body text. By reviewing headings alone, you draw attention to inconsistencies and errors you might otherwise miss. Plus, reviewing headings and body text separately ensures you check both types of text. (Some of the most embarrassing errors in legal documents are hiding in plain sight in headings and captions.)
9. Try Backwards Editin
Backwards editing may sound strange but it’s a useful technique for seeing your documents with fresh eyes. Here’s how it works: Review one paragraph at a time in reverse order, starting with the last paragraph.
When you edit from the end of your document, you’re taking each section out of context. Editing out of order makes it easier to notice missing transitions or missing information. It also makes you focus on individual words and phrases rather than getting caught up in the flow of your draft. You might catch more errors this way because you’re editing for clarity instead of substance.
10. Find & Replace Repetitive Words
Don’t be afraid to hit CTRL + F to systematically search through your document for common errors and inconsistencies. Using the search function will automatically highlight sections of your text so you can efficiently spot repetitive words and phrases. It will also show you if you’ve written words and phrases inconsistently. Once you see the highlighting, you can choose to replace words to add variety, or replace inconsistent words and phrases with consistent ones—with just a few clicks.
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