Checklist

Here's a short general checklist that you may use when editing your papers (but remember: it is better to customize this list so that it considers the characteristics of your own writing.). We provide an example of a problem, and its edited version:

a) Search for phrase and sentence fragments.

Phrase Fragment:

e.g., The Court dismissed the charges of aggravated harassment. The charges of aggravated harassment in the second and in the third degree.

e.g., The Court dismissed the charges of aggravated harassment in the second and in the third degrees.


Clause Fragment:

e.g., The Court dismissed the charge of aggravated harassment. Because the defendant did not initiate the telephone call.

e.g., The Court dismissed the charge of aggravated harassment because the defendant did not initiate the telephone call.

b) Search for run-on sentences and comma splices.

e.g., Mary mentioned two previous incidents when John Meyers abused her, she should include those in the petition for the order of protection as well.

Mary mentioned two previous incidents when John Meyers abused her; she should include those in the petition for the order of protection as well.

Or use two separate sentences, as in:

Mary mentioned two previous incidents when John Meyers abused her. She should include those in the petition for the order of protection as well.

c) Use the passive voice only when you want to subordinate the subject or source of agency.

e.g., Joseph was assaulted brutally (by John). (Passive)

John assaulted Joseph brutally. (Active)

It is appropriate to use the active version if you are prosecuting John for assault. However, the passive version is appropriate for his defense, because John appears less prominently portrayed as the source of the assault. As you can see, syntax is also a tool for persuasion.

d) Do not overuse the verb "to be" and its conjugated forms.

e.g., Nora Clements IS a prospective client who IS seeking an order of protection in Family Court against John Meyers, who IS her former boyfriend. To determine if Mary can get the order that she IS seeking, we must address both procedural and substantive issues.

Nora Clements is a prospective client seeking an order of protection in Family Court against John Meyers, her former boyfriend. To determine if Mary can get this order, we must address both procedural and substantive issues.

e) Use nominalization. (But careful: do not overuse it)

Nominalization is the transformation of verbs or adjectives into nouns, as in

John is exhausted. (adjective to noun)

John's exhaustion


John's generous behavior (adjective to noun)

John's generosity


John apologized to his friend. (verb to noun)

John's apology to his friend


John published the novel without authorization. (verb to noun)

John's unauthorized publication of the novel.

[The highlighted words have undergone nominalization.]

Though nominalization is useful sometimes, its overuse can really make your writing dense, monotonous, or incomprehensible. This is what happens in:

e.g. The suggestion was that an immediate intervention to solve the uncomfortable situation would ensure the protection of the members of the organization.

See how much clearer this sounds when we do not overuse nominalization:

e.g. They [or somebody] suggested that an immediate intervention to solve the uncomfortable situation would protect the members of the organization.

e.g. They [or somebody] suggested that the members of the organization would be more protected if there were an immediate intervention to solve the uncomfortable problem [or conflict, etc.].

f) Avoid overly embedded sentences.

Embedded sentences contain many clauses introduced by elements such as who, that, which. A sentence with multiple clauses inside or the succession of many sentences containing one embedded clause each makes the text more difficult to read and more confusing.

e.g., Nora Clements, who is a prospective client who seeks an order of protection in Family Court against John Meyers, who is her former boyfriend, is requesting our legal advice. To determine if Mary can get the order that she seeks, we must address issues that are both procedural and substantive.

Nora Clements is a prospective client seeking an order of protection in Family Court against John Meyers, her former boyfriend. To determine if Mary can get the order she seeks, we must address both procedural and substantive issues.

Or: Nora Clements, a prospective client, seeks an order of protection in Family Court against her former boyfriend John Meyers. To determine if Mary can get this order, we must address both procedural and substantive issues.

Or: Nora Clements seeks an order of protection in Family Court against her former boyfriend John Meyers. To determine if Mary can get this order, we must address both procedural and substantive issues.

g) Avoid repetition in sentence structure.

A text that repeats the same sentence structure (e.g. subject-verb-object-rest) over and over again may sound extremely tedious to the reader. Whenever possible, vary the internal structure of your sentences.

e.g., Clements and Meyers were not married. They both had children outside of their relationship. Meyers has lived apart from Clements for approximately a year. Meyers punched Clements in the face repeatedly seven months ago and badly bruised her. Meyers was arrested but Clements refrained from pressing charges. Then Meyers cursed at Clements and attacked her one week ago.

[We have underlined the subjects in this text in order to show that all the sentences and clauses in this text keep the same structure, namely Subject-Verb-Object-Rest.]

Now observe how the text improves when we just change the position of some adverbials (e.g., "Seven months ago", "One week ago") in the sentence, and by using the active voice (Meyers was arrested by the police.The police arrested Meyers.).

e.g., Clements and Meyers, who were not married and had children outside of their relationship, have lived apart from each other for approximately a year. Seven months ago Meyers badly bruised Clements by punching her in the face repeatedly. The police arrested Meyers, but Clements refrained from pressing charges. One week ago Meyers cursed at Clements and attacked her.

[The underlined subjects in this sentence show that subjects no longer occupy the initial position in the sentence; that position varies.]

h) Avoid tautological definitions, (i.e., avoid defining a term by using it in the definition itself.)

e.g. John's harassment constitutes harassment in the second degree.

John's behavior constitutes harassment in the second degree. [Edited version]