Line by Line - How to Edit Your Own Writing - Claire Cook.pdf

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ike most copy editors, those of us who style manuscripts
for the Modern Language Association have had our share
of appreciative authors, and not uncommonly they claim
that we have taught them something. "I enjoyed being
edited by you," one said. "I hadn't learned anything about my writing
for years, but this year I did." Another said, "I feel I learned a bit
about good prose from comparing the original and improved versions
of certain sentences and I appreciate the pedagogic value of the proc-
ess." Remarks like these ultimately led to this book, but at first they
puzzled us. In editing, we apply principles spelled out in many style
manuals—principles that our erudite authors, especially the English
teachers among them, would be likely to know. Even Homer can nod,
of course, and writers preoccupied with content naturally lack an
editor's focus of attention. Some of them, pressed for time, may even
rely on editors to smooth out the rough spots. But why had these
authors learned from us?
In discussing that question at lunch one day, my colleagues and I
came to realize what should have been obvious all along, that a
knowledge of principles does not necessarily confer the ability to put
them into practice. We began to see that our approach to sentence
repair involves specialized techniques that writers could profitably
train themselves to use. In revising their own writing, they would
have advantages denied the copy editor—an awareness of their aims
and the freedom to make substantive corrections. If professors of
literature had found our methods instructive, we reasoned, writers in
fields less directly concerned with language stood to benefit even
more. And so we conceived the notion of this book, a book that
would show writers how to edit their own work. Its execution eventu-
ally fell to me.
In some seventeen years of editing, at the MLA and elsewhere, I
have worked on a wide variety of manuscripts—not only scholarly
essays, professional articles, reference guides, and research summa-
ries but also press releases and promotional material, business arti-
cles, technical manuals, trade books, and textbooks in such diverse
fields as mathematics, engineering, acting, broadcasting, and sociol-
ogy. I have spent most of my working life rewriting writing, and some
of it in training others to do so, and the techniques I describe here
adapt to almost any sort of exposition. They should serve all writers,
various creative authors aside, who care enough about their style to
work at crafting clear, readable sentences—scholars and serious stu-
dents, certainly, but also those in business, government, and the pro-
fessions who have to prepare reports, proposals, or presentations. To
anyone sufficiently motivated to polish a final draft this book offers
ways and means.
Copy editors work line by line on finished manuscripts. They
concern themselves with correcting sentences already written. Thus
this guide deals not at all with the earlier and broader aspects of
composition, such as gathering, ordering, and developing ideas or
using examples and setting the tone. It focuses on eliminating the
stylistic faults that most often impede reading and obscure meaning.
These errors fall into five categories, corresponding to the chapters of
this book: (1) needless words, (2) words in the wrong order, (3) equiv-
alent but unbalanced sentence elements, (4) imprecise relations be-
tween subjects and verbs and between pronouns and antecedents,
and (5) inappropriate punctuation. Punctuation merits inclusion here
because it affects the clarity of sentences, but the other mechanics of
writing—spelling, capitalization, abbreviations, and so on—lie out-
side the scope of this guide. However much these details concern
professional copy editors, they have little bearing on how sentences
Two appendixes supplement the text. The first describes the parts
of a sentence and the ways they fit together—the fundamentals of
syntax. Those who have only an uneasy grasp of grammar should
find this review helpful in following the explanations in the various
chapters. Although I discuss grammar in the traditional terms that I
am most comfortable with and that are still likely to be the most
widely known, I do not mean to oppose or dismiss the newer systems.
They simply seem less pertinent to my purpose.
The second appendix presents a glossary of questionable usage.
While the dubious constructions it cites are only peripherally detri-
mental to good prose, writers who care enough about their work to do
their own editing will probably want to avoid wording likely to pro-
voke criticism. The concept of "correct English" is controversial, but
no one denies the interest in the subject or the prevalence of language
watchers ready to pounce on what they consider improprieties. Such
flaws stand out like red flags to copy editors committed to upholding
conventional standards. Violations can distract discriminating readers
from a writer's ideas and may even diminish the writer's authority.
Editors apply their knowledge of syntax and disputed usage in
routinely examining sentences for imperfections and making the re-
quired adjustments. Automatically checking for stylistic faults is what
this book is all about. It is also, I understand, what some computer
programs are all about. Colorado State University, for example, has
been using such a program in English composition courses. Students
type their themes into a word processor, which identifies various
kinds of errors, and if they press the
button, it offers possible
remedies. This program obviously has a lot in common with a copy
Although not many students, so far, have worked with these
teaching aids, initial results indicate that those who have had this
opportunity do better than control groups restricted to conventional
instruction. Unquestionably the program owes its success in part to its
one-on-one guidance. Students learn better by seeing their own mis-
takes highlighted than by doing textbook exercises that may or may
not reflect the kinds of errors they are likely to make—just as authors
who know the principles of good writing nonetheless learn from re-
viewing their copy-edited manuscripts. It's hard for writers to apply
objective standards to their own work, especially when they are con-
cerned with much more than style. The computer program or the
copy editor makes the application for them.
Computerized teaching seems so promising that I naturally won-
dered whether this book would be obsolete before it got into print.
From the practical point of view, of course, the day when every writer
has the services of copy-editing software still seems far off. Moreover,
impressive as the new word processors are, they must be less efficient
than human beings who have absorbed more sophisticated programs.
What this book tries to do is to program you to edit sentences, to train
you to process your own words. Without buttons and display screens,
without any cumbersome and expensive paraphernalia, and with far
less chance of going "down," you can instantly react to flabby sen-
tences, dangling modifiers, unbalanced constructions, and errors in
subject-verb agreement.
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