One word, please: “Make it about the reader” and other writing tips from an editor
As spelling and grammar checkers improve, I sometimes wonder how long people like me will be paid to check writers’ spelling and grammar.
Then I remember: there is much more to bad writing than missed commas and subject-verb agreement errors. In fact, most of the problems I fix in my editing work have nothing to do with grammar, spelling, or punctuation. Instead, a lot of the mistakes writers make involve things like logic, clarity, and reader’s memory.
Here are some actual notes I have given writers over the past few years, as well as disguised excerpts from articles they have written. Hope these comments can give anyone some additional insight into their own writing.
“Avoid sentences with an empty main clause. This note was inspired by a writer who wrote a phrase like “The Acme Hotel is a beautiful hotel”. Strip that phrase down to her bare bones and you have “the hotel is a hotel”. Duh. Often the solution for a sentence like this is to change the grammar so that the structure is not “Name is a noun”. In this case, the obvious alternative is “The noun is an adjective”. In some sentences, it works very well. As “The hotel is a luxury hotel” can be simplified to “The hotel is luxury”. But that only works because “luxurious” has substance. “Nice” does not. So, rather than changing that to “The Acme Hotel is Nice”, the writer had to find something substantial to say, like “The Acme Hotel offers spacious rooms with luxury linens and big screen TVs. “.
“Translate the language of business into terms meaningful to the reader.” If you write for a magazine specializing in the airline industry, you can say, “ABC Airlines’ SkySuite product is generally considered to be one of the best first class products.” But if your reader is a traveler who is wondering whether to splurge on a first-class seat, this won’t work. Travelers don’t see their on-board experience as a “product” and they may not be too excited about how it is “generally viewed”. The solution here: get the reader to talk about it and give hard facts so they can decide for themselves how awesome it is. “When you fly first class on ABC Airlines, you’ll enjoy a fully enclosed private suite, exclusive caviar service and meals prepared by a Michelin-starred chef.”
“Look at the verbosity.” Some writers take verbosity to the extreme, like the person who wrote this sentence: “You’re going to have to be in the know to get the most out of the program. The purpose of the article was to educate readers about the program. A total waste of words. I cut the whole sentence. Another alternative would have been to start a new sentence with “To get the most out of the program…” followed by advice.
“Half the admission doesn’t make sense if you don’t say what admission normally costs. This one is self-explanatory. One writer mentioned in an article that on certain days of the week entrance to the festival was half price. But he never said what the total price was.
“Pay more attention to the substance / meaning of your words. “Sometimes our words don’t say what we think they say, as this real sentence from an article I edited shows:” Here are some reasons this card offers that might provide to make it worth it worth it. ” What? Some of these words seem to have been included in error: “who could provide to”. But take them out and you still have the wrong phrase: “Here are some reasons why this credit card offers that might be worth your money.” The biggest problem is “this credit card delivers,” which adds nothing but fat. A big overhaul was the Cure: “Here are some reasons why this credit card may be worth buying.”
“Make sure your subject makes sense with your predicate. This note was inspired by the following sentence: “The idea of jumping on a plane or your car and traveling as you are used to will not be possible.” On the contrary. Even at the height of the pandemic, the idea was still possible. The solution here: drop the idea as a subject and cut out the rest. “Jumping on a plane or your car and traveling like before is not possible. “
June Casagrande is the author of “The Joy of Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know”. She can be contacted at [email protected]
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