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Copy Editing

Some Common Problems to Avoid

That and which

If the clause is essential to the meaning of the sentence, it takes that without commas: the entrance that we came through. If the clause can be omitted without changing meaning, it takes which and commas: The entrance, which is to the left of the parking lot, has a red door.

Comma with appositives: If an appositive is the only one in its category, it takes a comma (his wife, Mary; her first book, A Shady Tale). If there are or may be others in the category, a comma is not used (his sister Mary).

No colon before list: Verbs or prepositions introducing lists do not require colons (including Joe, Mary, and Ted instead of including: Joe, Mary, and Ted).

Commas with compounds: A compound sentence with two or more independent clauses requires a comma. (Bill went to pick up the hors d’oeuvres, and Sue made sure that the name cards were in the correct places on the tables.) A sentence with two or more clauses that have the same subject does not take a comma. (Bill went to pick up the hors d’oeuvres but turned around when he realized he'd forgotten his wallet.)

X ray, X-ray: The noun doesn't have a hyphen, the adjective does. In scientific usage, x ray is often lowercased.

Comma following the year in a date: When a month, date, and year are given, a comma must be used after the year as well as before it (the May 24, 2009, deadline). If only the month and year are given, no comma is used.

Comma following a state name: When a city and state are given, a comma must be used after the state as well as before it (Wilmette, Illinois, to the north).

Punctuation with quotes: Commas and periods go inside quotation marks; the context determines the placement of other punctuation marks.

Course work: Two words.

Quality: Should not be used as an adjective without a modifier (high-quality work, not quality work).

Under way: Two words.

Individual, individuals: Avoid using as a noun; use “a person” or “people.”

Very: Is very overused. It’s a good practice to search for and delete it where possible.

Bad line breaks: Software programs may incorrectly hyphenate some words, such as academic (should be aca-dem-ic), and may not distinguish between a verb (pro-ject) and a noun form (proj-ect).

Small caps: If setting type that would normally be upper- and lowercase in small caps, check to make sure that large caps are used for capital letters.

Copy Editing for Newswriting

The newspaper-of-record syndrome (i.e., giving every possible detail)

  • Example 1: The newsletter is coming out in late August. A story refers to the February 2 event at which the football recruits were announced. “Last February” would have been adequate—or even “last winter.”
  • Example 2: A feature on John Smith mentions that he is on the boards of Household International, Quaker Oats, and Microsoft, “among others.” By the time the article is through the approval process, the list has grown to Household International, Quaker Oats, Microsoft, 3M, Tribune Co., and Motorola. Inclusiveness isn’t necessary if the point is to give examples.

Unnecessary attribution and unnecessary quotes

  • There’s no need to attribute a fact that’s widely accepted or to put it in quotation marks. Quotation marks are better used for judgmental, controversial, colorful, or otherwise interesting comments.

Quotes that don't sound conversational

  • Example: “The privilege of serving the future generation while advancing our nation’s technological forefront is one I would be honored to assume.” Speaking of quotes, it is acceptable to make them more concise and grammatical, as long as you do not change the meaning or put words into a speaker’s mouth.

Excess verbiage

  • Example: “He took a step in the direction of the building” can be edited to “He stepped toward the building.”

Passive vs. active voice

  • Passive voice is not always bad (and is sometimes necessary), but if the sentence can be turned around effectively, do so.

Straining for synonyms for said

  • Synonyms like declared, asserted, affirmed, etc., sometimes sound forced.
  • “ . . . ,” he laughed should be “ . . . ,” he said, laughing. Laughter does not produce a word.
  • Also, watch for inconsistency in the use of says or said. Says is preferable for conveying a sense of immediacy, but sometimes it is inappropriate. If you must use said in one place, use it throughout.

Bogging down text with lengthy titles and credits

  • Example: “‘What we want . . . ,’ said Gary Saul Morson, Frances Hooper Professor of Arts and Humanities and professor of Slavic languages and literatures, who chairs the Committee on Writing, established by then-President Henry Bienen . . . ”

Unattributed opinion

  • We can get away with more than newspapers can, but still we should be cautious about assertions that provoke a reader to ask, “Says who?”

Unattributed quotes

  • Quotes should be attributed, even if the speaker is obvious.

Telling the story chronologically instead of leading with the timely and significant

  • Example: The first draft of a story about a custody case involving a lesbian mother gave the background before getting to what should have been in the lead: The case would set a precedent for homosexual parents seeking custody.

Lack of focus and structure

  • When you’re finished reading, can you say what the point is? How many read-throughs does it take to understand a paragraph or sentence?

Clichéd endings

  • The urge is great to summarize and to end every story with a quote. Sometimes one last detail can instead be saved for the close.

Switching from third person to second

  • A second-person lead on a third-person story may be acceptable, but it's jarring to switch into second person in the middle of a story.

Very long paragraphs/sentences

  • Magazines generally let paragraphs run longer than newspapers do, but really long paragraphs are hard on the reader. Variety in paragraph length also helps. The same goes for sentences.

Overuse of adjectives and adverbs

  • Example: “In her small, sparse office, she calmly answers reporters’ questions in deep, clipped tones while a small group of young staffers hovers anxiously outside.  . . . ”

Abrupt, poor, or missing transitions

  • Paragraph starts that have no continuity from the previous paragraph are jolting. Make sure that time lapses are accounted for, new characters are adequately introduced, etc.

Jargon, big words when simple will do, stuffy or stilted language

  • P.S. Contractions are permitted.

Inadequate identification of people

  • The full first name or both initials should be used, plus some descriptor to tell the reader who the person is and why he or she is included (such as “professor of xyz” or “the researcher who . . . ”).

Lack of balance

  • If you take on an issue, don’t give just one side.

Stating the obvious in captions

  • It's not necessary to say that Professor Smith “is standing in front of the computer” unless there's some possibility of misidentification.