First, a joke … or at least a laugh about how I dated myself:
I got an email from one of my columnists today with the subject line “Word.”
My first thought? “To your mother.”
God, do I feel old …
There are a lot of things that will drive an editor crazy. ( That includes the passive voice of the opening sentence. It should be: “A lot of things will drive an editor crazy.”)
But for many of us, it’s certain words or phrases, especially when used repeatedly by writers who don’t seem to notice because, apparently, it’s just a paycheck. Editors like me love writers who truly care about what they write, even to the point of being obsessive, as long as the result is a better piece.
I see being an editor as a bit like being a highway engineer: I should be able to drive safely and smoothly through prose. If something stops me, that’s a pothole I have to fix so those behind me have a smooth ride rather than fall into what might become a sinkhole. Narratives, whether nonfiction or fiction, should flow and make the reader want to continue reading, with no holes that will spur more questions than answers. In any published media form, copy editors are the readers’ last line of defense and best friend.
I’m not a grammar snob by any means (Who or whom? I don’t care unless the use is obviously wrong. Would The Who sing “Whom are you?” I didn’t think so.) When I edit for the paper, I employ both Associated Press and our own house style, but I also use the “sounds wrong” rule: You should always read aloud what you write. If it sounds wrong, it tends to be wrong, either to the ear or to the style rule. Those are potholes that need to be filled with asphalt, or the road relaid if it can’t be fixed.
So what are my potholes? Here are a few:
Amongst/amidst: There is rarely any need to use such antiquated words such as this, especially in newsy copy, as use of these words tends to stand out among more modern language. Leave those words to 19th century British writers, and use among or amid. Dost thou understand?
Versus rather than verses, and vice versa: Once or twice, you can put it down to a typo. Every single time? Get thee to a dictionary.
Swath: There’s no good “editor” reason for my hatred of this word. I just hate the sound of it and the dearth of good synonyms. It’s my “moist.”
“Verbed” nouns: I know some people don’t agree with me on this, but I can’t stand when people use transition, author or ink as verbs in most uses, or “impact” when referring to how something affects something else … unless that effect is a physical impact. Keep the ink in the pen, and sign that sucker.
“How ” when you mean “that”: As an example, “She explained how it was the biggest ball of yarn in Kokomo.” Unless she’s detailing the process of how the ball was made … no. Rather than “explained how,” try using something along the lines of “said.” And while we’re on this subject, “explained how” is redundant, as is “reason why” in most instances. But you knew that, right? But you knew that, right?
Garner: Unless you’re talking about Jennifer or James, please keep it out of copy I edit. It’s journalese/jargon … and its mother dresses it funny.
At the end of the day/in the fullness of time/to be sure: As introductory phrases, especially, these phrases add nothing except maybe an air of pomposity and the urge of those around you to pants you or give you a swirly.
Lookie here: This, along with similar “folksy” phrases, tends to come off as insincere, fake, and often condescending, especially when the rest of the copy isn’t folksy. If you’re writing something in Jed Clampett’s voice, that’s different … use “well, doggies” and “don’t that put a turnip in yer tailpipe” all you want. Just don’t stick in anything he wouldn’t say, like “in the fullness of time.”
CRACKS ME UP/IRRITATES THE CRAP OUT OF ME
Misplaced clauses: Sometimes that placement can be easily fixed with long dashes or setting off with commas. Other times, one has to wonder if that guy was really born when he was a senior in high school or if perhaps it was his brother. Then again, some of us were born old.
Inappropriate/incorrect elisions: For the last time, it’s ol’, not ole ( unless maybe you’re talking about some Swede you met last summer). It’s an ellision of old, people … you know, that thing I feel right now.
Nonsensical punctuation: Tell, the truth/ This. Is ; really hard.To read ,right?!
Misuse of there/their/they’re or your/you’re: Their, they’re … your fine.
AND THINGS I LOVE (Yep, it happens)
Amok, discombobulated and persnickety, among a few others: They’re just so much fun to say, especially when you’re a bit persnickety yourself.
Cliches that aren’t cliche: Headlines, especially, are often victims of cliches (and the shorter the headline, the more desperate we can get). If you have to use a cliche, what you should aim for is a new way of using an old saw.
About Writing and Editing: Jack Limpert’s blog is a favorite, especially for the common-sense way he and his contributors approach things. And hey, the Aug. 1st entry is about cliches, which just happens to be very similar to my take on the whole issue. What serendipity!
So, any writers or editors out there have their own favorites?
- The Rules of Writing (jblog.universal-nexus.com)
- George Orwell: really not all that (blogs.telegraph.co.uk)
- Tips for subbing copy (shwetagandhi.wordpress.com)
- The editor gets her in-box to zero, or tries to (csmonitor.com)
- Newspaper copy editors guard the day’s news (chronicle.augusta.com)
- You don’t need an editor; you need an editing team. (tahlianewland.com)
- A step-by-step guide to writing features (alisonharmer.wordpress.com)