Real editing notes I gave to real writers

There’s a lot 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 huge number of the mistakes writers make involve things like logic, clarity and remembering the reader.

Here are some real notes I’ve given to writers in recent years, along with some disguised excerpts from the articles they wrote. Hopefully, these comments can give anyone a little added insight into their own writing.

“Avoid sentences with an empty main clause.” This note was inspired by a writer who penned a sentence like “The Acme Hotel is a nice hotel.” Strip that sentence down to its 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 the structure isn’t “The noun is a noun.” In this case, the obvious alternative is “The noun is adjective.” In some sentences, this works great. Like “The hotel is a luxurious hotel” can be simplified to “The hotel is luxurious.” But that works only because “luxurious” has substance. “Nice” does not. So rather than changing this to “The Acme Hotel is nice,” the writer needed to find something substantive to say, like “The Acme Hotel offers spacious rooms with luxury linens and widescreen TVs.”

“Translate business-speak into terms meaningful to the reader.” If you’re writing for an airline industry trade magazine, it may be fine to say, “ABC Airlines’ SkySuite product is generally regarded as one of the best first-class products.” But if your reader is a traveler wondering whether to splurge on a first-class seat, this won’t fly. Travelers don’t think of their onboard experience as a “product,” and they may not get too excited about how it’s “generally regarded.” The fix here: Make it about the reader and give hard facts so they can decide for themselves how great it is. “When you fly ABC Airlines first class, you’ll enjoy a fully enclosed private bedroom suite, signature caviar service and meals prepared by a Michelin-starred chef.”

Here are more in my recent column.

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