By Adam Eckart
When I meet with students to review a paper, students often react to our discussion with an “aha” moment or with a comment similar to “I don’t know why I wrote that.” While these realizations are important in the writing process, having them at a conference with a professor is often too late because grades have already been recorded.
How can students get feedback sooner in order to make changes before a paper is submitted? The revising process is the answer.
What is “revising”?
Revising is actively engaging with a paper to identify issues and areas for improvement in the structure, reasoning, and language. The revising process is not limited to passively re-reading, fixing citations, or correcting spelling errors.
How to execute a successful revision
In order to successfully revise a paper, engage in the following practices.
- Use outlines to evaluate structure. Macro-level and micro-level structural problems can create confusion in papers. Although good students complete a robust outline prior to writing an initial draft, most students never return to the outline. Revert to the original outline and use it as a rubric to evaluate the paper. Alternatively, evaluate a paper by outlining on scratch paper during a re-read to help identify structural issues or inconsistent themes.
- Explain orally to clarify. It is tempting to write in soaring rhetoric or complicated legalese. Writing in this manner can lead to convoluted sentences that are confusing or excessively wordy. Step back and explain orally what point a confusing or wordy sentence is seeking to convey.
- Evaluate weaknesses to improve. Acknowledging weaknesses is important in writing, and in life. Acknowledge weaknesses in a paper, either through a detailed self-review or based on comments from a prior paper. Finish the paper 24 to 48 hours before it is due and take stock: ask which section is the weakest and spend the remaining time improving this part of the paper.
- Sweat the small stuff to avoid “silly mistakes.” Errors in the small stuff–incorrect citations, improper formatting, and spelling mistakes–add up. Engage in focused editing to avoid these “silly mistakes” (as students often call them).
- Revise with purpose. Simply re-reading a paper is not the best way to revise a paper because it is difficult to spot problem areas this way. Take an active role in revising and evaluate the issues identified above by employing the following strategies.
- Read backwards, in hard copy, or page-by-page to ensure that the writing is on-topic, clear, and concise.
- Look for one specific issue at a time in each re-read. For example, check for consistent large-scale themes, then prior mistakes or common problems, concise language, spelling errors, citations, and so on.
- Question each sentence or case in a paragraph and ask the purpose of each. Each sentence or case should have a purpose and the purpose should be easily identifiable.
- Read the paper for what it is. Be sure to detail all relevant case facts and legal reasoning. A grade is given based on what is written on the paper, not what information a student knows.
By engaging in a fruitful revising process, students can improve a grade on a paper and can ensure that a paper lives up to a student’s potential.
Adam Eckart is an Assistant Professor of Legal Writing at Suffolk University Law School. Prior to Suffolk, Professor Eckart practiced at Ropes & Gray LLP as an associate in the antitrust mergers and acquisitions practice and taught in the Lawyering Program at Boston University Law School.