Words & Language Toolbox
Nothing annoys readers like having to plow through a litter of errors on their way to a period. And because even professional writers can get rusty regarding the basics, it’s a good idea to check on one’s recall from time to time.
March 28th, 2018 • Words & Language Toolbox
This checklist will help you edit faster and better
A reader had a question: “You say in The Book on Writing that we should write fast and edit slowly. As a reporter, I found that advice helpful, and I’ve tried to follow it. Problem is, I’m now a copy editor — and I edit too slowly.
I get lots of reader queries about that and which. Here’s a typical email: “I’m pretty good at grammar and usage, but apparently I don’t have a clue about the correct use of which and that. There’s some principle at work here that I don’t understand.
I know a real-life Mrs. Malaprop, and it’s impossible not to grin when she speaks. Examples: She said she didn’t think her skin rash was generic because no one else in her family had it. She said that when she mentioned her favorite uncle, she meant Uncle Joe pacifically.
A self-described “obsessive-compulsive copy editor” sent the following: “I just saw the word miserly used as an adverb in an online news story: ‘What moral person could gratuitously, miserly, refuse health insurance to their own citizens?’” You probably spotted yet another error (albeit more common and less peculiar) in that sentence.
One thing I’ve learned during a decade of teaching writing in universities and two decades as a newsroom writing coach is the importance of the small things. The single syllable, for example. On one hand, single-syllable words are the province of naturally gifted writers.
An editor asks: “What’s with journalists and the verb ‘sunk’? We’re getting it wrong all over the place. Her spirits sunk, slowly the truth sunk in — like that. I learned to conjugate ’sank’ in the third grade!” That editor and I must have had the same third-grade teacher.
A common punctuation problem in media writing is the unnecessary comma between multiple adjectives preceding a noun. Whether or not we should separate adjectives with commas is a simple matter — there are even some grade-school tricks to help. Yet that mistake litters otherwise polished media writing: “She wowed in a gauzy, off-white, Zac Posen dress.”
Once, while chatting over lunch with a friend who also happens to be a highly skilled writer, I used a simile. I mentioned I’d had dinner with a woman whose false lashes were so profuse and so precariously attached that they looked like caterpillars clinging to her eyelids.
One of my year-end tasks is going through a fat desktop folder labeled “GRIST.” It contains writing examples, some sent by Quill readers, that I saved during the year and now must sort, read, write about or toss. Within my GRIST folder is another folder, labeled “SNARK.”
A friend told me he once heard a dinner speaker whose remarks were so disorganized and disjointed that at one point someone in the audience said quietly to those within earshot: “Let’s take up a collection and buy this guy a clue.”
Once, during my 20-year tenure as Dallas Morning News writing coach, an intern told me triumphantly: “Hey! I got all the W’s plus the H in my lead!” Now, writing being what writing is — that is, infinitely various — I knew the intern’s lead could be great.
I’ve often used this space to extol the virtue of the small word — the bright, clear word we all know and understand. So why do I bring it up again? I bring it up again because today, the day of this writing in April, would have been William Shakespeare’s 450th birthday.
My career as a writing coach has taught me that good writing boils down to a few overriding principles. The first is the writer’s clear-eyed understanding that writing is speech, written. And good writing is good speech, written. I’m not parroting the axiom “write like you speak.”
Sequence of tense is a basic construct of English grammar that should pose few problems to professional writers but in fact poses many. The sequencing of tenses seems so poorly understood in most newsrooms that basic tense errors litter media writing of all kinds.
Lesson learned: Write fast, edit slow By Paula LaRocque The best advice I ever got was from a college English professor. He was a notoriously demanding teacher, and I wanted to do well in his class. Naturally, I depended upon my time-honored habits as an overachiever.