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Can Automated Proofreading Software Make You a Better Writer?

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on May 16, 2016 3:57 PM

As lawyers, we're all writers. But we're not poets here, and legal writing doesn't have to be (and probably shouldn't be) best-seller worthy. It should be better, though: clear, accessible, and sometimes even enjoyable to read. And there's a bevy of automated editing and proofreading software out there that promises to improve your writing with the click of a button.

So do they work? Sort of.

WordRake v. Scalia

When it comes to a little editorial help, you can rely on your handy copy of Garner's Elements of Legal Style, your built-in spelling and grammar checker, or any of the many automated proofreading programs out in the market. In fact, there are even a few such programs devoted specifically to legal writing.

Lawyerist's Lisa Needham recently reviewed one such robotic copy editor, WordRake, and the results were ... illuminating, and pretty amusing. WordRake is an add-on for Microsoft Outlook that proofreads your writing and suggests changes. It was created by a lawyer and operates like Word's built-in review functions, but much more sophisticated.

To test WordRake out, Needham tried it out on a series of documents, including the late Justice Scalia's dissent in Romer v. Evans. In case you forgot, Romer is a landmark gay rights case in which the Court ruled that animus towards a group alone is not rationally related to legitimate state interests and therefore such laws cannot withstand even the least demanding levels of scrutiny. Scalia's dissent was a long, impassioned screed, a long defense of ... well, we'll let you decide for yourself. (Bigotry? States' rights? The law as tool for moral disapprobation?)

It Doesn't Hurt ...

Was WordRake able to improve Scalia's writing? Maybe, but not in a way that left its content wholly intact. There were some improvements. As Needham writes, "When WordRake chewed through Scalia's Romer dissent, it desperately wanted Scalia to stop saying 'sort of.'" That's not bad advice, but not fitting to how Scalia used the phrase, which was to discuss the "sort of 'animus' at issue," not to say the Constitution "sort of" allowed anti-gay legislation.

We ran the dissent through a trial version of WordRake as well and found that most of the changes made the writing slightly tighter, cutting down on wordier bits and only occasionally making suggestions that didn't seem to work. We did the same to this post prior to publication and found the suggestions helpful -- so long as you take the time to actively review them; if you simply give them all a green light, the meaning of your words could be unintentionally altered.

We're not sure if WordRake made us or Scalia a better writer. But it probably didn't hurt. "It didn't hurt" might not be worth WordRake's $129 to $199 cost, but you're welcome to test it out for free and decide on your own.

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