I make writing mistakes. My students and colleagues will tell you so. I’m not the world’s greatest proofreader; I’m easily distracted and lazy and hasty. Yet I can be judgmental about others’ mistakes. So I try to soften my judgments and practice patience, hoping it will be reciprocated. Several years ago, I wrote this about mistakes. It contains a confession.
A former student sent me this comment, carried in a major newspaper, from a senior partner at a law firm:
Do not ever for the second time give your senior a piece of writing with a typo or a grammatical mistake. I will take it once and I will tell the junior my set speech. But if it happens again? Well, find out for yourself.
I have three problems with this statement.
1. The speaker is talking about litigation writing. (If you visit the firm’s website and look this person up, you’ll see that the person is a litigator.) My former student rightly points out that this kind of expectation is probably unrealistic for some transactional drafting:
I’m not a bad writer, but far from perfect. On occasion I miss small errors in my work. I might draft a 160-page credit agreement, based on a form that itself had errors. Some of those errors are minor, such as a stray parenthesis, misplaced comma, etc. Others are more serious and could lead to ambiguity. Of course, I try to catch everything, but I don’t think I’ve turned in a perfect draft once yet. Nor have I seen a perfect document yet from other attorneys unless the document is very short.
Perfect work is rare, but perfect work in the context of a 160-page credit agreement is likely impossible on the first draft. Of course, the speaker is thinking of a motion or a brief or a memo. These are rarely more than 50 pages and are often much shorter. So the speaker should have qualified his remarks for the context in which he works.
2. I think the speaker’s statement is hyperbole, intended to scare young lawyers. Of course, you must proofread your work carefully—very carefully. You should try to turn in perfect work every time. But you must acknowledge that it is not possible to turn in perfect work every time. For example, I wrote a 230-page book, which I proofread myself and had two others proofread. I later found 4 typos in it. I was chagrined and dismayed and embarrassed. But that’s life. Perfect work is rare. In truth, it’s unusual for me to read a book—and I read almost exclusively books about writing—and not find at least one mistake. So the speaker should be more realistic. Besides, the speaker’s not perfect either . . .
3. The speaker makes mistakes, too. This is often what those who claim to expect perfect work forget or seem blind to. I read the speaker’s profile on the firm’s website, and I found two mistakes. Granted, they were fine points of punctuation (and I’m not talking about the serial comma, which the speaker does not use, by the way). But they were mistakes according to the Texas Law Review Manual on Usage and Style, The Redbook, and The Chicago Manual of Style.