An Amazing Way to Proofread your Legal Documents

Proofreading red pencilIt’s probably a leftover from my days on law review and later as a magazine editor, but I cannot stand to see typos, whether I created the document or not. Especially bad is when I call up a document I have used previously to, say, draft a demurrer, and I find a typo, meaning that the first document was filed with that mistake.

When I receive a brief from opposing counsel, replete with spelling errors, I immediately think less of the attorney for being so sloppy. Especially in the case of spelling errors, it just screams laziness because it means the attorney ignored the red underlining when drafting the brief, and then didn’t take the 30 seconds necessary for a final spell check. No doubt opposing counsel could not care less about my assessment, but what if the judge shares my sanctimonious nature?

I once heard a judge, at a continuing education seminar, explain that he looks for a basis to deny a motion if the attorney used the passive voice. Another judge wrote in a ruling I had happened to see while at court, that he had greatly reduced the amount requested in a fee application because the attorney did not use proper Bluebook citations. He reasoned that if the attorney is that lazy about citing cases, he is probably not very efficient when preparing a motion. If there are judges out there with that sort of mentality, do you really want to submit a brief with grammatical and spelling errors?

The best way to proofread your legal documents.

During my editing days, I learned that the best way to do the final check of a document for errors is to read it out loud. Without exception, every attorney and paralegal who has come to work for me has responded to this suggestion with, “No, I’ve learned to edit by reading the document on the monitor.” In every case, when they’ve submitted their first work product, I find errors in the document, and read the marked up document to them, asking after each error, “were you able to hear that error when I read it to you?” Sometimes this process has to repeat itself two or three more times before they become a believer (or just to avoid the damned visits from me), and soon I hear the lilted voices of all my attorneys and paralegals, echoing through the halls, as they proofread their documents.

This weekend I was reading** a book called Write in Steps, and the author, Ian Stables, went me one better. He agrees that reading aloud is the best way to proofread a document, but he says that it should not be you who reads it.

As I have experienced, when you read your own document, your mind knows what you meant, and it will mentally fill in words and correct errors, keeping you from hearing them. When finalizing a really important document, such as a Supreme Court brief (don’t be too impressed, I’m talking state court; I’ve never had the opportunity to submit a brief to THE Supreme Court), I do my read out loud thing, and then turn it over to my partner to do the same thing. I am amazed that she will sometimes find things I missed, and I know it is because my brain pulled a fast one on me.

Does this mean every document has to read by two people? No. Stables came up with a much better method.

You have your COMPUTER read the document aloud.

A computer can’t be fooled. It will read exactly what is on the page. If your computer reads the document aloud as you follow along, it will force you to hear the mistakes. If a word is misspelled, it will be pronounced in a strange way. If a comma or period is missing, you'll hear the missing pause.

In my first test of this method, I took an article I had just written, and proofread it following my normal read it aloud method. Then I opened the document in a program called Natural Reader, and followed along as it read to me. One mistake had slipped through. I had meant to type “them”, but instead typed “the”. When I read the article aloud, my mind filled in the missing “m” and I read it as “them”. Even as I was reading along with Natural Reader, I saw the word as “them” until the computer said “the”, making the mistake glaringly obvious.

The Natural Reader program is absolutely free. (It’s actually called NaturalReader, with no space, because apparently spaces are evil when it comes to naming software, but I refuse to participate.) If you use Word, you just open the file in Natural Reader, hit the play button, and off you go. It highlights the text as it reads it to help you follow along. If you use Word Perfect (actually, WordPerfect), then you have to first save the document in PDF, and load the PDF into Natural Reader.

I was concerned that Natural Reader would hiccup over the pleading page numbers, but it ignores them. Also, I thought the citations might come out strange, but it handles them with no problem, the exception being that it reads the citation Cal.App.3d as “Cal App three D”, but that makes sense. Who would abbreviate third as 3d other than the legal citation guides? By the way, having the computer read the citations is a good thing, because we tend to just jump over those, assuming they are correct. Now you will be forced to look at them.

The only thing that drives me crazy are the signature lines, which Natural Reader reads as “underscore underscore underscore underscore underscore underscore underscore underscore underscore underscore underscore underscore”. Annoying, huh?

When you first use Natural Reader, you will curse my name, because the voice is set far too slow by default. Fear not, you can adjust the speed at which Natural Reader reads. A “2” setting works best for me, and makes the voice sound more natural as a bonus.

You can upgrade Natural Reader to add some very cool features (like saving documents in mp3 format to listen to them later), but none of them are necessary for the proofreading purpose I am promoting.

** By “read”, I actually mean that I was listening to the book on my Kindle as I ran some weekend errands. If you haven't read my article on how to read three books per week without even trying, go to my Kindle Unlimited Review.