Bar News - October 18, 2013
Computers Canít Write: A Review of Wordrake Editing Software for Lawyers
By: Kirk Charles Simoneau
WordRake is the "first editing software for lawyers," because, as the companyís website explains, "when your writing is more effective, so is your message."
This is true, but the problem with applying mathematically derived software code to the English language is the resultant robotically-made point. The persuasion is gone. Computers canít write.
To prove this hypothesis, and to make a thorough review, I took some of the paramount legal documents of our time and "raked" them. I ran them through the softwareís editing program.
Please understand, one has the option to accept or reject any proposed suggestion the software makes, but this can be a tedious process. The software looks at sentences; it reviews and examines for words and word orders that are, technically, bad writing. It does not understand you are a people seeking freedom from an oppressive King. It doesnít understand if youíre writing for posterity, and it certainly doesnít get that a particular judge has a penchant for being quoted, verbatim, and doesnít want your software rewriting his prose.
"When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve..." This, of course, is the way Thomas Jefferson began the unanimous Declaration of the 13 United States of America. Had WordRake been sitting alongside Tom and Ben, this document would have begun, "When in human events..."
There is a potency to language that obeying the rules can evaporate. The first version, wordier and more deliberate yet technically wrong English, let King George know our forefathers (and mothers) were serious. Just the slightest change in words alters the import of a statement so that when, "We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice..." becomes, "We the people of the United States, to form a more perfect unionÖ" something is lost. Is it technically better writing? Yes. Perhaps it is the human imperfection of language that makes it so often rise to the poetic. Perhaps that is why when I "raked" Robert Frostís, The Road Not Taken, not a single word was changed.
In addition to selling editing software, WordRake provides weekly email writing tips. Many are quite useful. Septemberís tip explained of writing: "The doís and doníts are easy to teach, but they should be grounded in some reasoning."
The problem, of course, is that when one runs a Complaint, Motion or breezy software review through the program, and it finds a legally operative phrase, such as "as a proximate cause," WordRake changes it to the much better and simpler, "because." The rule applied by the software appears not to be grounded in reasoning. "Because" doesnít mean proximately caused. If you donít believe me, read, or rake, Palsgraf v. Long Island R.R. Co.. Technically correct English isnít always technically correct law.
The software installed easily in Word, though it did crash a couple of times during my very brief trial. It will rake, line by line, through any document, and when it comes to a "mistake," it gives you an opportunity to accept the suggested change or reject it. It eliminates the passive voice in favor of the active, removes excessive "thats," eliminates unnecessary prepositions, and rescues dangling participles. These are good things, but sometimes the passive voice is the "right" voice. And some participles should dangle.
Avoid the cost of this software and have what you write read by a trusted colleague who can understand, not just the technical rules of writing, but the tone and purpose of a document. If you want to increase your billable hours and commoditize your practice, WordRake will help but, in my experience as a writer, speaker and comic, long before I became a lawyer, language that doesnít follow the rules often provides the clearest message.
Kirk Simoneau is a partner at the firm of Nixon, Raiche, Vogelman, Barry, Slawsky & Simoneau in Manchester.