Tag Archives: editing

E. Jean Carroll in Court

The big news story this week was the jury verdict against former President Donald J. Trump. E. Jean Carroll sued Trump for defamation  – and won a five-million-dollar settlement. The case goes back to 2019, when Carroll claimed that Trump had raped her in a New York City department store.

What does all of this have to do with writing? Apparently very little – until you read a New York Times article about the clothes that Carroll wore in the courtroom. Journalist Vanessa Friedman makes the point that Carroll carefully chose outfits that sent a message about who she was: a serious person who doesn’t seek attention for its own sake.

Here’s how Friedman explains it:

Like all victims of sexual assault who take their cases to trial, her body was at the heart of the case. What she put on that body, how she presented it, mattered.

Words – like clothing – don’t just send a message: they are a message. Jumbled words point to a jumbled brain – even if you’re a genius who was experiencing a momentary lapse. Careless editing points to a careless person – even if you were in a time crunch for good reasons.

I know all about lapses. I make plenty of mistakes in my own writing, and I don’t always catch them. Nobody’s perfect. But I strive mightily to showcase my own competence and professionalism, for a very good reason. I know I have the power to control the message my words are sending.  That message matters – and I choose to wield that power every time I sit down to write.

Photo of E. Jean Carroll

Picture of E. Jean Carroll courtesy of Julieannesmo

Pablo Picasso

Today I’m going to talk about a paragraph from the SAT prep website. The subject is Pablo Picasso, a famous twentieth-century artist. The paragraph is an interesting one because the writing is both good and bad.

The world in which Picasso lived was particularly supportive of his developing celebrity. His family cultivated his creative passion, he had clusters of peers who inspired him, and he had the good fortune to be born at a time when new ideas in science, literature, and music energized his work. Moreover, the advent of mass media allowed him to achieve widespread fame.

Here’s what’s good: the paragraph uses moreover to build towards a climax. That’s what professional writers do – and what student writers should practice doing.

Here’s what’s not so good: too much information is crammed into the second sentence. It talks about family, peers, science, literature, and music. Whew!

This is typical textbook writing. Because there’s so much to cover in a semester, information comes at you at lightning speed.

I’m not blaming the College Board for posting this paragraph. But there’s a danger if students imitate these examples. The ideas rush by too quickly.

Instructors can help by spending more time talking about emphasis. Students should work on emphasis too. One suggestion is to simply spend more time thinking about it.

An easy first step when you’re writing is giving each idea its own sentence. An effective second step is developing each idea with something interesting – an anecdote or an intriguing fact.

Try it!

                                             Les Demoiselles_d’Avignon


Which Is Correct: As or Like?

Because my field of study is English, I rely on the Modern Language Association (usually abbreviated to MLA) for help with research citations.

I also use their Style Guide to keep up with changes in writing rules. So I was very interested when the MLA sent me an article about the difference between as and like. That’s a word pair that sometimes befuddles me, and I was looking forward to some enlightenment.

Here’s the kind of sentence I find confusing:

I wish I could dance like she does.

I know that most grammarians (Strunk and White, for example) would disapprove. But why?

This is the explanation I found in the MLA email:

Wilson Follett has a handy rule: “as tells in what role or capacity the deed is done; like introduces a comparison.”

The sentence I just typed for you is a comparison, right? I don’t see a “role or capacity.” But I have enough of a grammar background to know that most grammarians would still say that it’s wrong. What to do?

After tying myself in knots for a few minutes, I came up with a solution: just rewrite the sentence.  Here’s my new version:  “I wish I could dance the way she does.” Problem solved!

You won’t find this advice in most grammar books, but every professional writer I know swears by it: When you run into a grammar problem you can’t solve, rewrite the sentence. Done!

A cup of coffee with a message "Unlock your confidence"


Editing Software

How strong are your writing skills? Are you a good speller? Do you feel confident about spotting and correcting usage errors? Do you have a knack for finding and fixing awkward sentences and tangled syntax?

If the answer to any of those questions is “no,” you might want to think about signing up for editing software. Some services are free, while others charge a subscription fee.

My friend Chuck Warren sent me an article that lists 11 editing tools and describes how they work: Instantly Improve Your Writing with These 11 Editing Tools.” I recommend reading the article and thinking about using one of these editing tools to look for errors in your written work.

Computer software tools can’t think like humans, of course! For example, most editing tools can’t spot a word that’s spelled correctly but used incorrectly (your/you’re, its/it’s). And sometimes they’re not as smart as we are! The grammar checker on my computer sometimes nags me to fix a sentence that I know is perfectly ok.

Still – spellcheckers, grammar checkers, and other editing tools are a great boon to writers. (The tools on my home computer have saved me from many embarrassing errors!)




Sequence of Tenses

Today’s topic is sequence of tenses. That’s a fancy name for rules governing verbs – such as when you use past tense (went, liked, saw) and when you use past-perfect tense (had gone, had liked, had seen).

In conversation, you’re probably not going to pay much attention to the rules I’ll be reviewing. (At least I don’t.) Sequence of tenses starts to become important when you want to showcase your skill and precision for a professional writing task.

Let’s start by clearing up a common misconception: You should use the same tense for all the verbs in a sentence. No, no, no. It’s perfectly ok to mix verb tenses.

Take a look at these examples. (All are correct.)

My doctor told me that headaches are a possible side effect of the medication. (told is past, are is present)  CORRECT

The meteorologist said the storm will be over by 8:30. (said is past, will be is future)  CORRECT

Joe recommended taking Central Boulevard because it tends to be quiet this time of day.  (recommended is past, tends is present)  CORRECT

We spent some time discussing store hours for Christmas Eve, which falls on Sunday this year.  (spent is past, falls is present)  CORRECT

If you’re looking for a rule, here it is: trust your common sense. Take a look at this sentence, which needs two past-tense verbs:

Theodore Roosevelt declared that he would not run for a second term.  CORRECT

Let’s go on to past-perfect. In general, past-perfect is needed when two events happened at different times in the past. Use the past participle and had in front of the event that happened first. Most past participles will end with –ed, but a few verbs have special forms: gone, seen, done, and so on.

Although Karen had invited me to stay with her, I booked a hotel room instead.  CORRECT

I returned the DVD when I realized I had seen the movie with Jeff.  CORRECT

There’s an exception. When the sentence includes a time marker (last week, yesterday, in 1902), you don’t need to bother with a past-perfect verb.

After Joan told me about Grisham’s latest novel last week, I reserved it at the library.  CORRECT

Does it seem like there’s a lot to remember? It’s really not as much as you might think. If you review the rules a couple of time and practice writing a few sentences, you’ll quickly master sequence of tenses.


Google Docs

When I was writing my doctoral dissertation in the mid 1980s, I did much of the writing on a laptop that I hauled to various coffee shops, libraries, and hotel rooms – any place where I could find a quiet corner to work. Before I left home, I always downloaded the latest version onto  a backup disk. Or I thought I did. More than once I sat down to work at some location away from home, only to discover that I’d packed the wrong disk.


If Google Docs had been available back then, the writing process would have gone much more smoothly for me. Google Docs is a free website that lets writers safely store a project online and access it at any location that has an Internet connection.

But wait – there’s more! Google Docs also has its own word-processing system, so that you can create a new document online.

Google Docs also allows collaboration – highly useful for anyone who does consulting work. You can even open up a window inside a document to chat with a collaborator in real time. (I can remember, years ago at a CCCC conference, hearing Lisa Ede say that she and Andrea Lunsford dreamed of having that functionality available to them. It’s here!)

My only gripe with Google Docs is that it’s not intuitive – not for me, anyway. I would like to have the most useful functions clearly visible on a toolbar. For example, I use Google Docs primarily as a backup for ongoing projects. It annoys me that the upload function is hidden inside a folder. But then maybe what’s important to me isn’t a priority for other users.


Weak vs. Strong Sentences

A recent copyblogger post raised an excellent question: How do you determine whether you’ve written a strong sentence – or a weak one?

My answer is that I have to hear the sentence in my head. Here are three sentences I’ve written myself (sigh) that I’d like to nominate for today’s “weak sentence” award:

Keeping the library open on Sunday afternoons is something Dean Wilson and I agree on.

Taking a cruise was an option that didn’t appeal to me at first, but in the end I enjoyed it.

A widespread custom in many countries all over the world is for communities to plan festivals to celebrate the fall harvest.

Several features of these sentences bother me. (By the way, I’d be interested to know if you’re bothered by these sentences too – or is it just a quirk of mine?) I don’t like “is something” in the first sentence and “was an option that” in the second. More problematic – to my ears, anyway – is the way the first two sentences seem to sputter as they come to a stop.

The third sentence presents a different problem: it seems static. Instead of reading what a widespread custom is, I’d prefer to read what those communities are doing.

Here are my suggested revisions:

Dean Wilson and I agree: the library should be open on Sunday afternoons.

The cruise – which sounded like a bad idea at first – turned out to be a memorable vacation.

Many communities all over the world plan festivals to celebrate the fall harvest.

Problem solved, right? Not so fast! If it’s hard to write strong sentences, it’s even harder to explain how to do it. So I was delighted when I came across that copyblogger post: “3 Advanced Ways to Craft Better Sentences.”

Alas, the advice turned out not to be advanced at all. Use active voice. Don’t overuse a word. Don’t belabor a point. Examine your writing with a critical eye. (Anyone who already knows how to carry out that last suggestion doesn’t need to read articles about writing!)

Even worse, some of the writing – despite the promise in the headline – was weak. For example, author Stefanie Flaxman urges writers to use Google to double-check words and expressions that aren’t “straightforward.” How – I ask you – do you know when something you’ve written isn’t “straightforward,” and how can Google help? She doesn’t provide any examples – not one.

All she says is that she checks “anything that makes me question whether or not it is correct.” What is “it,” and what is the warning sign that makes you question whether it is correct? I think she’s trying to say that she looks up confusing words like compose/comprise and affect/effect. Good for her! But we’re still not an inch closer to figuring out how to write a powerful sentence.

Here are three strategies I use myself to write stronger sentences:

  • Watch for that sputter I mentioned earlier. One trick is to end sentences with a noun rather than a weak word like it.
  • The words thing, something, and – oddly – being often weaken sentences. I use all three words, but I always spend some time first to see if should replace them.
  • Weak sentences often point to a deeper problem: I have nothing important, interesting, or fresh to tell my readers. It may be time to hit the delete key and start over.


I Never Stop Editing

It seems I never stop editing. Two sentences in a recent New Yorker article (“Personal Best” by Atul Gawande, October 3 2011) made me stop and think. (Incidentally, the New Yorker is a well-edited magazine – I have gripes only a few times a year.)

These sentences interest me because they’re both correct (the first is an example of a grammatical point few writers seem to understand) – but I still think rewriting is necessary.

Here’s the first sentence:

Perlman, disabled by polio, couldn’t play the violin standing, and DeLay was one of the few who were convinced that he could have a concert career.

Two things here fired off my mental editing machine. Gawande’s choice of were (one of the who were) deserves a round of applause. Most writers would have used was (“Delay was one of the few who was convinced”). My thinking: few…were. If you wanted to use was, you’d have to revise the sentence like this:

Perlman, disabled by polio, couldn’t play the violin standing, and DeLay was one instructor convinced that he could have a concert career.

But there’s something there that bothers me: Using “he” in a sentence about two males, Perlman and DeLay. I’ll admit that few readers would be confused. Obviously Perlman is the person whose concert career is in doubt. Still, I can imagine a reader’s brain halting for a few milliseconds to make sure it really was Perlman.

OK, let’s get even pickier. “And” is a weak way to join two sentences.

So I might have revised the sentence like this:

Most instructors believed that Perlman could never have a concert career because his polio forced him to play the violin sitting down. DeLay was one of the few who thought otherwise.

You probably noticed that I made two sentences out of the original – often a cure for awkward or ambiguous sentences.

Here’s the second sentence that stumped me:

Knowledge of disease and the science of treatment are always evolving.

My problem is “knowledge.” Did Gawande mean only knowledge of disease, which seems to be the case, or knowledge of both disease and the science of treatment? If so, the verb should have been is. (Click here and see Rule 4.)

Now you could argue that Gawande’s choice of are indicates that he meant knowledge of disease to be a separate thing from the science of treatment. But why set all the English teachers out there a-wonderin’? There’s a simple solution: Insert “the” at the beginning of the sentence.

The knowledge of disease and the science of treatment are always evolving.



Clarity, Anyone?

I hate the word “different.”

A sentence in the August 31 Wall Street Journal demonstrates why. The article, “Age-Proofing Your Job Application,” includes this sentence:

A Gmail account gives off a markedly different impression than an AOL or Hotmail account, for example, as does a user name that includes your name or initials and includes only a couple of numbers at the end, if any at all.

So…if I were an older job applicant, which email account should I have? The article doesn’t explain, nor does it enlighten me about whether a user name with a “name or initials” and “a couple of numbers at the end” is good or bad.

All I know is that email addresses are…different.

Gee, I think I knew that already.

 Journalists, take note: Clarity should be high on the list of qualities you strive for in your writing.


Jibe or Gibe?

Turns out I don’t know which word to use: jibe or gibe.

I made this discovery when I took a Washington Post editing quiz based on the latest edition of the AP Stylebook. Click here if you’d like to try the quiz yourself (it’s short) – and you should. Anyone who’s serious about writing should have a sense of the things that editors do and the issues they have to deal with (like the difference between jibe and gibe – sigh).

Note that I’m not saying you should memorize the AP Stylebook, or even that you have to follow it. The AP (for Associated Press) Stylebook tells journalists how to handle various usage questions, and often the decisions are arbitrary: Is it Queen or queen? Pope or pope? Synch or sync? (Answers: queen and pope, unless a name follows, such as Queen Victoria; sync, without the h.)

Many organizations and institutions have their own stylebooks. At the college where I used to teach, the stylebook (which I helped write) decreed that President should be capitalized. We didn’t care that the AP Stylebook didn’t do it that way: We thought our President (an amazing woman, by the way) deserved a capital letter.

If you enjoy tangling with issues like these, perhaps you should think about a career in publishing or editing. And if your future does seem to lie in that direction, it would be a good idea to get your hands on the AP Stylebook to learn more about what editors do.