At CanLII, we have a number of programs that provide opportunities for writers to publish their work. Most recently, we have been working to develop content from scratch through initiatives such as a collaborative manual on BC litigation and our call for book proposals. It’s through these projects where we have taken on a whole new and exciting aspect of publishing: editing.
Editing is complex and exists on multiple levels that can happen in succession or at the same time, and can range from general to specific. There are also several types of editing, from developmental to proofreading. Overall, the goal of editing is the same: to make a written work cohesive and clear to its readers.
Through my experience with publishing initiatives at CanLII, I’ve learned a lot about editing that I didn’t know before, and feel like I’ve just scratched the surface. If you start to do editing, I hope that this information will be helpful to you.
Audience and Tone:
- Legal content can be serious business, so the tone can end up being more formal than with other content. Legal content also includes jargon that can be confusing to the layperson. If you are writing a resource for members of the public, using plain language can make legal resources easier to read. Back in 2018, many businesses had to do this when the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) became enforceable law. You might remember this from receiving a slew of emails of updated privacy policies rewritten to be more transparent to the public about how they handle personal data.
- It’s not always possible to avoid legal terminology because, for some legal terms, there’s just not a sufficient plain language alternative. Providing examples or definitions up front can help with this.
- Deciding who your audience is goes hand in hand with what type of document you’re publishing. Whether it is public communications, practice manuals, guides, textbooks, or academic articles, each comes with their own writing processes and goals that can help you determine your audience and tone.
Accuracy (and a note on legal advice) :
- There can be serious consequences if the legal content you put out into the world contains errors. It’s always important to keep this in mind when editing, but for legal resources it’s essential to make sure the information is error-free, truthful and correct.
- It can be a fine line when you offer resources on legal topics not to stray into giving legal advice. If you’re not qualified to offer legal advice, you can ask someone who can to review your work or to collaborate with you.
- Keeping legal resources updated, or at least making clear what date the content is current to, is extremely important because the law is constantly changing. When developing a legal resource, you should consider how often it will be reviewed to make sure it is up to date. Make the version information visible and clear to readers so they know if they need to do further research.
Formatting and styles:
- The process of deciding on a citation style and how to format lists, headings, spacing, punctuation etc. is not much different for legal resources than with other types of resources, from my perspective. Where the difference lies is with definitions and spelling choices. When are Latin phrases in italics? When do you capitalize a word like Act or Rule? Perhaps this is obvious to you, but it may not be for someone editing this content for the first time. For this reason, it’s important to create a style guide, or to use one that already exists that is specific to legal writing.
The role of editors can fill some or all of the tasks mentioned above. Thankfully, Editors Canada has established terminology that can help communicate these tasks so expectations are made clear.
On a final note, here are a few quotes from fellow peers that have become my editing matras:
“Edit the material you’ve been given, not the material you would have written” – Deb Quentel, Director of Curriculum Development & Associate Counsel at CALI – Center for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction.
- An important reminder to keep your editing user-focused.
“Don’t let perfection be the enemy of progress”
- Editing in general takes a lot of time. Knowing when to stop can be hard, but it is key to reaching a completed publication.
When you edit legal writing, what else is important for you to consider? If you have any tips to share, please comment below.