Law Review Lara on Editing by Student-Run Law Reviews:

A law review editor writes:

I am curious to know your thoughts on the amount of editing you think a law review should do because my primary concern when editing is infringing on the author's style (as noted in the comments to your post). My general approach is to always strive for clarity then brevity when editing, but in cutting needless words, I always worry that I am somehow infringing on style. I could say a lot about this topic, but I'm sure you are familiar with these general concerns.

This is a topic near and dear to Law Review Lara's heart, because many of Lara's closest friends write law review articles. Those friends love to hear valuable editing suggestions — even when the suggestions are in the form of implemented edits that the author can undo or mark "stet" — especially because they recognize that an author may have a hard time seeing flaws in his work.

But the friends don't at all love to hear editors insisting on changes unless the change is genuinely necessary. Those friends think their writing is theirs, and is tied to their identities and reputations much more than to the journal's identity and reputation. Moreover, many of the friends have been professional writers for many years, and fancy themselves to be better than law students as final arbiters, though they are happy to hear the law students' advice.

Of course, the friends would also prefer that even the nonobligatory suggestions be mostly good ones, so they won't have to spend too much time going through and rejecting the unhelpful ones. Still, they recognize that editors and authors often have different approaches and that authors will inevitably have to spend some time rejecting suggestions they dislike in order to get the benefit of the suggestions they like.

So what should law review editors do, both to maximize the quality of the journal and to make both the authors and the editors as satisfied as possible? There's of course no precise answer, but here are a few guidelines:

1. Stress to the authors that all the edits are only suggestions, except for the very few that are required for the sake of accuracy or to comport with universally accepted rules of writing or formatting.

2. If an author rejects a proposed change, and your only reason for insisting on the change is "law review policy" or "law review style" or "consistency among articles" stop insisting. Almost no-one reads law reviews cover to cover (except for symposium issues, and rarely even then). No-one will notice, much less remark on, the fact that some articles in an issue use contractions and others don't, or that some authors split infinitives and others don't. If you're applying a universally accepted rule, then you can indeed politely say to the author that his usage appears wrong according to the proper authorities; but then you're relying on the authorities, not "law review policy."

3. Make as many suggestions as you can that are aimed at making the prose clearer, more precise, shorter, or otherwise more readable. Most authors will appreciate your effort, and will agree to most of your suggestions --- especially if they're good — since they too want their prose to be clearer, more precise, shorter, or otherwise more readable (even if it didn't seem so from reading their article).

4. Try to make your suggestions as good as possible. That's a hard one, I know, but it's of course the most important one — both for the sake of the authors, and for the sake of editors' education. (Law review editing, after all, is supposed to be an educational experience.)

Try to train your staffers and editors in good editing. Give them editing exercises to show them how to edit well. Stress to them the importance of editing for clarity, precision, and conciseness, rather than just for consistency with the technical rules of grammar and spelling. Select people who are good at editing to supervise the process, and tell them to give editors feedback about their editing (especially when the editors who get the feedback are in their 1L/2L year rather than their 2L/3L year).

5. Figure out which of the author's usages are deliberate reflections of the author's style. If the author uses contractions throughout the article, don't just change each one to the spelled-out version, even just as a suggestion. The author obviously likes contractions, and will find all your work in spelling them out to be useless.

Rather, if you genuinely think contractions don't work well for your journal, discuss this up front with the author, before wasting your time and his. If the author insists that he likes contractions, then go through and mark those particular contractions that you think are especially inapt. The author will probably accept most of those suggestions, because they reflect individualized judgment about what works best in each particular context. But if you tried to "correct" all the contractions, the author would probably have rejected all these suggestions, because he'd see that they simply reflected disagreement with his style.

6. Finally, never make unmarked changes, not even a comma or a font change. Many authors rightly demand that every letter and symbol in their article be something they personally wrote or personally approved, having been told that someone else inserted it. You can mark these edits on paper, or using a word processor Track Changes feature, or even by using a word processor Compare Documents feature, if the document comparison tool does a good enough job of noting precisely where the changes are. But mark them, or you could have one angry author on your hands.

Lara is sure there's more that can be said, and perhaps she will say more in future posts. But for now, she hopes that this offers a helpful guideline.

very good advice:
Eugene, this is very good advice for most of the law review editors I know. I have had several journals try to make stylistic changes which, frankly, tend to make the articles worse. In one such case, the changes even reflected a political/ideological tenor that, dare I say, was not consistent with my view of the subject.

One addendum to Eugene's number 6: Do not make additional, last-minute changes after your back-and-forth with the author is completed. If you do, make sure you are not re-incorporating changes that the author has rejected, and definitely make sure that your frantic, last-minute changes are not riddled with typos.
9.25.2008 7:29pm
Curt Fischer:
To me at least, this post is another example of how the publication of legal scholarship is different than in other disciplines.

The editors are agents of their journals. That's true in law as well as anywhere else, but in what other field are the authors in positions of authority (i.e. professors) over the positions of the editors (i.e. students)? I think this fact might be distoring the balance of power between editors and authors. For example, Eugene's admonishment, "Finally, never make unmarked changes, not even [...] a font change," is utterly absurd to me.

The authors are not publishers! In any other publishing settings it is not the author that is help responsible for typesetting the book!
9.25.2008 8:11pm
Robert West (mail) (www):
in what other field are the authors in positions of authority (i.e. professors) over the positions of the editors (i.e. students)?

As a law review staff member, I must say: I find the premise embodied in this absurd.

Yes, it's possible I might end up editing a piece written by a faculty member I'm taking a class from. But I've got to assume that faculty member is a professional; and my duty to the law review is to do the best job I can at editing the piece, regardless of what other relations the author and I might or might not have.
9.25.2008 8:25pm
Alan Gunn (mail):

in what other field are the authors in positions of authority (i.e. professors) over the positions of the editors (i.e. students)?

I think the real question should be, "In what other field are the editors so ignorant about their subject?" West and Foundation don't even try to make editorial changes in their casebooks and texts. Why should law reviews?
9.25.2008 8:25pm
Dave Hardy (mail) (www):
Egad, how the world has changed! I published my first l. rev. article (other than a student note) in 1974. I stopped publishing 1986-2007, and come back to a different world.

1970-80s: many fewer law reviews. I'd guess a hundred rather than five hundred. Inundated with "publish or perish" academic pieces. At the end of this period, the secondary review had just begun to take hold; until then it was one review per law school, and even at the end maybe 5-10% of schools had a single secondary review.

To submit meant typing it out triple-spaced and mailing hard copy. Many a decent article went unpublished, and getting a very good one accepted would usually take six months of work and quite a few dollars for copying and postage.

It was a buyers' market. Even at law reviews of middling reputation, editors were kings. If you don't like the edits, argue us out of it or take it elsewhere.
9.25.2008 8:55pm
Sean M:
Anyone who feels that law review editors are butchers out to wreck brilliantly crafted masterpieces have never seen what a cite-check level draft of an author's article looks like.

The reality is that law professors need law review editors and law review editors need professors. The question is simply striking the right balance.
9.25.2008 9:08pm
LarryA (mail) (www):
West and Foundation don't even try to make editorial changes in their casebooks and texts. Why should law reviews?
I write fiction and opinion, not law, but I always want my work edited. It is simply impossible for even the most careful authors to catch all the errors in their writing. The last time my writer's group critiqued one of the four of us wrote about the wrath of a woman scored, and another about a marine ejaculating seamen.

Not the way I want my work remembered.
in what other field are the authors in positions of authority (i.e. professors) over the positions of the editors (i.e. students)?
Copy editors editing best-selling/celebrity authors, technical writers editing the boss's work, PR types editing the boss's work, magazine editors editing the publisher's column or other articles, etc. It's not at all uncommon. Particularly as a freelance editor if I don't please The Writer I don't get return business. (Which I often do.)
For example, Eugene's admonishment, "Finally, never make unmarked changes, not even [...] a font change," is utterly absurd to me.
The only unmarked changes I make in editing are things like two spaces between words/sentences, spaces before or after paragraph breaks, etc. (Yes, when you're publishing these errors can make big differences.)
my primary concern when editing is infringing on the author's style
One of the most effective techniques I've found is to read the entire article before attempting to edit it. I do this even with novels. That lets you get into the author's style before you begin.
9.25.2008 9:22pm
P. Gowder (mail) (www):
Worst law review editing story ever: I know someone who got a demand, from an editor from a very high-ranking journal, to drop a pin cite to back up the claim that Plato, in the Republic, talks about education.
9.25.2008 10:45pm
Staff Editor:
P. Gowder: How is that the "[w]orst law review editing story ever"? Of course, the vast majority of readers will be familiar with the Republic, to the extent, I agree that it approaches common knowledge. But you must know that it is common practice among all law reviews to require citations for all factual claims, and--whenever possible--to cite to the source as precisely as possible. These rules are, though tedious for both authors and staff editors, generally helpful for the consumers of legal scholarship, who do often trace claims back to their original sources. Tangentially, rest assured that for each time an author is asked to provide a pin cite for a claim that should perhaps stand on it's own (and note, as an additional aside, that usually it is the editors who will be required to find the pin cite, not the author), there are several other instances when authors either fail to provide citations of any kind for less-than-obvious factual assertions or cite to sources that do not at all actually support the claim that they are making.

In short, I'm sure there must be much worse law review editing stories than *that*.
9.26.2008 12:02am

West and Foundation don't even try to make editorial changes in their casebooks and texts. Why should law reviews?

Because my casebooks from first year are filled with proofreader's marks correcting flagrant errors in grammar and usage. (The errors were just as pervasive in casebooks during my second year, but by then I had trained myself to ignore them.)

I still have relapses, usually triggered by a writer who loves adverbs. Firstly, secondly, etc., and hyphenated adverbs are intolerable, although I've come to terms with "more importantly."

Adverbs are adjectives are clutter, not style. (Ok, not always. Only 99/100 uses are clutter.)
9.26.2008 12:40am
I have to agree with Sean. When law professors stop submitting articles with footnotes that say things like "[cite here to that Dick Posner piece from '92]," or quoting the same part of the Constitution 4 different ways in the course of a piece, there will cease to be a need for law review editors.
9.26.2008 1:43am
the wrath of a woman scored

That's just brilliant! :-)
9.26.2008 1:53am
But is Law Review Lara friendz with Article III Groupie?
9.26.2008 2:32am
Mark Rockwell (mail):
In my experience, most law review articles should shredded, thrown in a recycling bin, and rewritten from the ground up by the student editors.

Ok, I'm exaggerating; but I have a simple request to all of you out there who are pumping out law review articles: when you say something, cite it. Or try. But when you say, the XYZ court said ABC about Statute QLM, it's not the statute you want to be citing. And when you write a sentence, try--TRY--to make it legible.

9.26.2008 2:49am
Robert West (mail) (www):
Citations which don't support the factual claim are part of the game. It's a hazing ritual, I think, designed to see if law review staff can find the correct pin cite when given an obviously wrong one.
9.26.2008 3:17am
P. Gowder (mail) (www):
Staff editor: not knowing that the Republic talks about education is like not knowing that there's a slave in Huck Finn. Would you like a pin cite for that proposition too?

(Incidentally, I have no idea why my full name points to a registered volokh account--- did I register at some point? I don't even begin to remember my username if I did...)
9.26.2008 3:44am
Alan Gunn (mail):
Alligator said:

West and Foundation don't even try to make editorial changes in their casebooks and texts. Why should law reviews?

Because my casebooks from first year are filled with proofreader's marks correcting flagrant errors in grammar and usage.

And you expect law students to know something about grammar and usage? You're right about some casebooks; it's a good bet that whenever you see the word "whomever" in a law book, "whoever" would be right. But the students are even worse. These are the people who for years insisted that verb forms couldn't be "split," so the law reviews were filled with clumsy expressions like "we often have seen ...." The one rule that student editors seem to know is Fowler's proposed distinction between the relative pronouns "which" and "that," a "rule" that has never actually been part of English. Letting these people edit will not make a good writer's work better.
9.26.2008 9:11am
Chris79 (mail):
P. Gowder, I agree with "staff editor" and I think you're really missing the point of citations. Although law reviews do ask authors to cite factual propositions to prove that they've thought about it and can back it up, the MAIN reason law reviews are so citation-heavy is to allow law review consumers to use a law review article as a bibliography. Very few people actually enjoy reading the stilted drivel pumped out by professors from beginning to end. The people reading law review articles today are looking for quick support for specific propositions.

Moreover, professors often have a very stitled idea of common knowledge. I bet that more than 95% of Americans could not tell you what "The Republic" was about or even who wrote it. Even among the very well educated lawyers, students, and academics who typically consume law review articles, I imagine the vast majority are mostly unfamiliar with The Republic. Adding a citation for these people allows them to easily find the source if they are confused, without really burdening those readers who DO already know.

Also recall that only part of Plato's Republic talks about education. Those law review consumers who know about Plato's Republic might be inspired by the article to reread (or read for the first time) those parts related to education. Why not make it easy for them to find it?
9.26.2008 12:04pm