I took the train to Paris recently. (Sorry — I can’t help myself. I just love typing those words.)
That gave me an uninterrupted two hours to edit a document on the way to Paris and another uninterrupted two hours to edit a document on the way home.
The experiences couldn’t have been more different.
What’s odd is that it wasn’t the quality of the drafts that made the experiences different for me (the editor), but rather the quality of the reactions that I anticipated receiving from the authors.
How can that be? How can an editor enjoy revising one document and loathe revising another based solely on the anticipated responses to the edits? And what lessons might that teach the author (the person being edited)?
What did I edit when I was Paris-bound?
Nearly twenty years ago, I worked with a new associate at my big firm in Cleveland. The first draft brief that this person prepared for me was okay — not take-your-breath-away good and not take-your-breath-away bad. I wasn’t going to grab this associate and hold on tight, asking him or her (but I’ll use the feminine) to work with me on every future case. On the other hand, I wasn’t going to throw my hands up in disgust, re-write the brief from scratch, and choose never to work with this associate again. Rather, this associate would get a few more chances, and we’d see whether she was educable.
She was! The second brief that she wrote for me was much better than the first, and the third better than the second, and soon she was on auto-pilot: When I asked her to write a brief, I’d receive back an entirely respectable draft! (You might expect that to be a routine experience at a large, well-regarded firm; it is not.) That doesn’t mean that her later drafts survived my review unchanged; two heads are often better than one. On the later drafts, I might make a few general substantive comments — “consider re-working the introduction to emphasize argument A,” “maybe move argument C from last place to first,” “what about argument D?” — and she’d take those ideas and run with them. Sometimes I’d hear that “your thought for argument D was silly, Mark; it didn’t work for this reason.” And sometimes I’d hear that “argument D played out brilliantly; not only that, it leads to arguments E and F, which are even better!” In short, she and I worked together to produce good work.
The associate ultimately left big-firm life and now teaches legal writing at a law school. Before I left for Paris, she had asked me to take a look at a draft of a law review article that she’d written. The article describes a new type of exercise that forces students to focus on the important, but subtle, aspects of good writing (such as organization, themes, and using precedent) without being distracted by the easy stuff (correcting typographical and grammatical errors, fixing cite forms, and so on).
I wasn’t editing this paper as part of my job; I was just helping a former colleague and friend. And I was delighted to do this: As I wrote marginal notes on the draft, I knew that the author would read my ideas, accept some and reject others, and make the maximum possible use of what I’d written to improve her work. Together, we’d help her create a better article; the editing process was a joy.
My psychological state couldn’t have been different a few days later, when I was London-bound.
Several months ago, I received a draft brief from a partner at a large firm (whose name you’d recognize in a heartbeat). That draft prompted me to write my column about “The Literary Genre of ‘Big Firm Mediocre.'” As my train passed through Picardy at 180 mph, I was reviewing another of that person’s drafts, and I was not in a good mood. But it wasn’t (entirely) the quality of the draft that affected my psychological state as an editor; it was the reaction that I knew I’d receive to my comments. I’d suggested in my revisions to the earlier draft that we should “eliminate all unnecessary dates and facts from the statement of the case; we surely don’t need to tell the court, for example, that ‘the appellant filed its excerpts of the record on May 1, and the appellee filed its excerpts on June 1.'”
What did I get back? The author deleted the offending sentences about the excerpts of the record, but did nothing about the extraneous detail cluttering the rest of the brief. He or she did the least possible work to accommodate my proposed changes.
Where I wrote a marginal note that we might consider argument D, the author dropped a footnote that said basically: “Argument D also exists.” There was no hint that the author agreed with what I’d proposed, disagreed with it, or had even thought about it. The author’s reaction to my comments was effectively: “I do perfect work, and this idiot is suggesting some changes. I decline to think about anything that he said, and I will instead make the fewest changes possible to get him off my back.”
That attitude ruined the whole trip back to London. I’d write marginally, “Please fix this throughout,” knowing full well that the author would fix the one problem that I’d noted and not bother with the rest. If I suggested an idea in the margins, I’d be putting myself on the wire without a net: The author would obediently include the argument, without considering whether it was right or wrong or whether the argument raised other ideas worth investigating. I dutifully revised the brief, but I took no pleasure from the process.
(Yes, yes: I could fire this person. But it’s expensive to fire a lawyer in the middle of a case. So we’ll struggle along with this lawyer until the one case that he’s handling is over, and then we’ll never hire him again. I can fix these problems slowly over time, but I can’t fix them all overnight.)
I’ve always thought that it was a pleasure to edit great drafts and a chore to edit bad ones, but I’d never before focused on how the primary scrivener’s attitude can affect an editor’s mood. I learned from my Parisian trip that I enjoy editing a document when I know that someone will think about what I’ve written, and I dislike editing a document when I know that my comments will be received as an unwelcome burden. I thus also learned that, if you’re at the helm of a document, thinking hard about issues raised by an editor will not simply improve your work, but also make the editor think more highly of you.
And, finally, I learned from my Parisian trip that, for all that London has to offer, the British just can’t match the French for the quality of their croissants.
Mark Herrmann is the Chief Counsel – Litigation and Global Chief Compliance Officer at Aon, the world’s leading provider of risk management services, insurance and reinsurance brokerage, and human capital and management consulting. He is the author of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law and Inside Straight: Advice About Lawyering, In-House And Out, That Only The Internet Could Provide (affiliate links). You can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.