Lawyer v. Editor
When I was a first year law student, my torts professor seemed both ancient and old-fashioned. He’d totter into class clutching a yellow legal pad covered with scribbles and spend most of the hour reading aloud in a quavering voice. Every so often, he’d ask a student to recite the facts of a case we’d read the previous night, and explain how the court reached its decision. Not surprisingly, the student frequently got it wrong. But this professor was the polar opposite of One-L’s Professor Kingsfield. Far from berating the student for his or her error, my professor would say, “I think what you really mean is…” and give the right answer. He was a kind man.
The words “kind” and “lawyer” don’t often appear in the same sentence. It’s much more common to focus on an attorney’s intellect. When I was practicing law I didn’t much care if my opposing counsel was a nice person. But my opponent’s ability was enormously important. I always preferred a smart lawyer on the other side. It’s hard to show why a carefully-crafted lawsuit should nonetheless be thrown out. I had to meet opposing counsel’s arguments head on — and defeat them. That wasn’t easy; often I didn’t prevail.
But it was still far better than confronting an ill-informed opponent. I saw many lawsuits where the lawyer couldn’t tell a coherent story, or misunderstood the applicable law. You’d think these would be the easy cases. Sometimes they were. But when the lawyer didn’t state the facts plainly or explain clearly how they violated the law, my job was much more difficult. I’d have to decipher what had supposedly happened and determine which law the attorney claimed had been violated. Then I’d need to explain my opponent’s claims to the court and show why those were all wrong and my client deserved to win. I’d be forced to advocate the other side’s position, then turn around and argue for my own. Talk about a conflict of interest.
I haven’t handled a case like that in several years, but the feeling came rushing back today when I was editing an essay. The writer used lots of complicated sentences and convoluted figures of speech. Metaphors and allusions chased each other down the page. “Beijing fashioned itself in a cloak of gloomy adjectives.” Really? “If more people knew about Chinese history then Sinology wouldn’t be limited to scholars.” It’s hard to dispute that, if more people know about something, then more people know about it.
So I waded through, tossing similes to the left and metonyms to the right. The passive voice is abhorrent to me, so I rephrased every sentence as an active one. By the time I finished, the review was one-third its original length and the author’s argument was laid bare for all to see. Unfortunately, this literary emperor had no clothes. Take away the sound and fury and what remained was — nothing.
But editing and practicing law have very different goals. If you’re a lawyer, it’s okay if the other side is just strutting and fretting. That means you win. When you’re editing, you’re supposed to make the writing better. The writer is your client. You can’t just boil the piece down to its essence and say, “See? It doesn’t make any sense. You lose.” Editing isn’t about winning, it’s about improving.
Back I went to my colleague the essayist, taking half a leaf from my torts professor’s yellow pad. “What do you really mean here?” I asked. “Can you say it more clearly?”
I love helping people improve their writing. Sometimes that means I have to tell them to upgrade their thinking. I hope that, like my professor, I do it with kindness. Then, maybe next time, instead of rewriting history, I’ll only have to help refine its presentation.
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