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Every junior associate has spent hours drafting and revising a document only to get back something that looks like a sea of red ink. Some partners and senior associates will be more ruthless than others, but part of the process of moving from being a junior to mid-level associate is upgrading your drafting skills. This isn’t a review of the rules of grammar, or a lesson on how to write effectively. Rather, we want to focus on the important task of self-evaluation and how it can improve your writing. FOCUS ON THE WRITTEN STYLE Your first few drafting assignments can seem to fly by in a flurry of papers. Hopefully, you are focusing on the substance of what you are doing, making sure the document is formatted as it should be, and hunting down every last typo. You should always, as a matter of course, check all cites (remember blue booking from law school — you should keep doing that every time), make sure defined terms are used properly and consistently, and see that all of the cross references are correct. Stop and add a step. Once you have established the substance and the organization of the document, take time to focus on the writing style. Does it fit the purpose of the document? Is it easy to understand? Does it flow from sentence to sentence and paragraph to paragraph? The more senior attorneys reviewing your work are going to be asking these questions, so you should too. Before you hand in the document to someone else, “hand it in” to yourself and review it with a critical eye. Look for sentences that can be simplified, words that do not serve a purpose, and ambiguous phrases which muddle the text. Just a tip: if it sounds like it was written by a lawyer, chances are it can be written better. So beat everyone to the punch: Take out your own red pen and have a go at it. It’s unnerving, but the first time is the hardest. It will eventually become second nature. LEARN FROM REVISIONS You have dutifully handed the document over to a more senior attorney and now you’re looking at a red piece of paper which vaguely resembles your original draft. Trust us, no matter how critical you are with the document, you will likely find someone more senior who will be more critical. Once, a two page document was marked up so thoroughly, a “the” in the middle of the first page was the only original word to survive. But that is not a bad thing; in fact, it is a great opportunity to improve your skills. Don’t just make the changes — learn from them. Too many junior associates fail to make an assessment of how their writing has been changed. Instead, they focus their energy on redrafting the document to fit the changes they have been given. By failing to really review how the document has been changed, you are missing out on an important learning opportunity. Look at the changes and see how you can improve what you’ve done. How have the sentences been changed? How have the paragraphs been restructured? Where were things simplified? Reviewing the changes can provide a detailed road map on how your writing can be improved. Here is a helpful tip: Your computer probably offers a simple and automated way to red-line two versions of a document. After the editing changes have been made, create a red-line so you can see all the changes. Spending several minutes reviewing it can offer important insight into how to improve your written product. As with most things in the law, a word of caution is in order. Do not take every revision as gospel. There is no one perfect way to be an effective legal writer, and just because a more senior attorney wants to say something in a different way does not mean that they are right and you are wrong. Use your judgment and, while you may not agree with every change, you are sure to find changes that improve the product. FOCUS ON AREAS TO IMPROVE Most often, when you closely review how your document has been edited, you will see that the same types of changes have been made more than once. Focus on those suggestions in your next assignment. Having the benefit of the prior feedback, you can renew your effort to improve your writing in that area. Maybe you use the passive voice too often, or maybe you end up with sentences that try to convey too much at once. The point is that you should make every effort not to repeat your mistakes. Even after you have made a critical review of the writing, have one more look at the document for specific problems that you have previously identified. Making the effort to focus on specific improvements is all the more important when the next assignment is for the same senior attorney. You want to demonstrate that you can improve your work, especially your written product. With just a few minutes of focused energy, you should be able to do it. PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE Effective legal writing is not learned overnight. You need as many opportunities to critically assess your work as possible. As we explained, you should be learning from each one. Do not shy away from assignments that will let you gain more experience. Strong writing skills are a universal trait of great lawyers, and the sooner you get on with improving yours, the better off you (and your career) will be. Seek out writing assignments and make every effort to learn from them. Jeffrey A. Fuisz is counsel and Alison King is an associate at Kaye Scholer.

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