30 Years of Legal Editing

By Cheryl McCord, Legal Publications Attorney Editor

I am a legal editor. For over 30 years, I have edited legal resources used and relied upon by Oregon lawyers. Over the years, I have seen a lot of mind-boggling changes in the editorial process. Frankly, probably because of my advancing age, it’s difficult for me to remember “the way we were.” I will, however, make a feeble attempt to do so.

The Old Days

When I began my career as a legal editor, we paid law students to check the citations in chapters (e.g., running heads for case names) and to alert us to issues that required further analysis. The clerks came to our office to check out chapters (which the authors had sent to us by Pony Express) and then they went to the law library to work on them. They would have to run around the library to get—and put back—multitudes of volumes of reporters, treatises, statutory compilations, and other resources, and then physically turn pages to check an author’s citations. (They had to be physically fit, like firefighters.) Using red ink pens, they made changes and notes on the manuscript pages. After completing a chapter, the clerk returned the manuscript to a legal editor.

The editor then made editorial changes on that same manuscript using a different-colored ink pen (I preferred purple). The editor looked at Oregon cases and statutes while reviewing the legal accuracy of the author’s statements. Inserts and revisions that were too lengthy to interline on the manuscript were hand-written (often illegibly) on separate pieces of paper and attached to the relevant pages. The resulting dog-eared and wrinkled product became a collage of different colors, arrows, doodles (flowers were my specialty), editorial symbols, and materials (including coffee stains, remnants of what the law clerk had for lunch, and other unknown substances—I’m sure the brown smudges were chocolate).

Then our secretary typed the inserts and the messy pages, and used the cut-and-paste method to put the edited manuscript together. This was a very time-consuming (and sloppy) process. We then photocopied this conglomeration to send it to the author, who reviewed our edits and made additional marks on the pages. The chapter was then ready to be sent to an outside typesetter. When the print version was returned to us, we had to proofread the manuscript carefully, line by line. AARRGGHH!!

One thing I’ve learned over the years is that everything is always evolving into something else. Like everything in life, our editorial process has undergone changes that have been so gradual and imperceptible that we didn’t even know they were occurring (such as our hair color—mine is now white; when did THAT happen?).

The Future Is Here

With the invention of personal computers, we began to type our own inserts, but our word-processing specialist had to incorporate the inserts and hand-written editorial changes into the digital version of the chapter. Then, with the advent of online legal resources, we attorney editors enjoyed great access to many different kinds of legal materials and began doing our own cite-checking online. It was amazing—we could sit at our desks and visit many law libraries without having to jump up and down and run down the aisles between bookshelves! We thought that our editorial lives couldn’t get much better than this. But that evolutionary process kept on truckin’.

And then, lo and behold, we discovered digital editing! (Yep, just like Al Gore invented the Internet.) It was miraculous! (Well, okay, I have to admit that I resisted this change. To begin digital editing in MS Word seemed overwhelming—it was so different and revolutionary and there was so much to learn! It’s harder for my old eyes to read words on a computer screen than words on paper. I even questioned my inner being—was I an attorney editor or a word-processing non-specialist? Woe is me.)

The evolution of our editorial process has given life to a better world of editing. I believe that digital editing, coupled with online legal researching by our attorney editors, have improved the quality and accuracy of our publications. We now even have dual computer monitors to enhance the process (one screen for the chapter we’re editing, and one screen for online legal resources).

Digital editing is also a huge benefit to our volunteer authors. The track-changes feature of digital editing in MS Word enables them to readily see where any changes were made to the chapter. (Deletions are noted in boxes in the left-hand margin and additions are marked in red with a double underline.) Rather than destroying trees in order to mail hard copies of edited chapters to authors, we now e-mail chapters to them. Authors seem to appreciate receiving an electronic version of their chapter with tracked changes; it saves them time in reviewing our work.

Some Things Never Change

Although the manner in which I accomplish the finished product has changed over the years, my essential role as a legal editor has remained the same. Editing a legal manuscript involves not only reviewing the substantive accuracy of the author’s work, but also checking the work for spelling, grammar, consistency, and conformity to an in-house style manual. The legal editor is also the person who reviews the chapter from the reader’s perspective, ensuring that the reader will understand what the author has written. An important part of the legal editor’s job is to determine whether the author has left any unanswered questions in the reader’s mind. The editor serves as a link between the authors (who are usually quite knowledgeable about the subject matter) and the readers (who may not be).

As I said before, everything is always evolving into something else. What will attorney editors be like in the future? (I know I’ll be even older.) What if attorney editors evolve into a new species with computer-like brains so that they can do editing and cite-checking in their own minds? At least that would make it easier to work from home.

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