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What editors look for

Over at Headsup: The Blog, fev proposes to survey readers and editors alike to identify the markers of good editing. If you are interested in participating, please go there and contribute. Here, following the three main questions, are my responses:

1. What are three features of grammar that help you tell whether a story was well edited?

2. What are three features of style that help you tell whether a story was well edited?

3. What are three features of content that help you tell whether a story was well edited?

1. Grammar

We’ll take it for granted that the punctuation will have to be cleaned up for almost anyone, so that can wait for the final pass-through. And we’ll consider grammar broadly, to include usage.

Subject-verb agreement. Or pronoun agreement with antecedent. Or any other grammatical pitfall. I like subject-verb, because people are forever forgetting the either-or, neither-nor rule, or following there is with a series of nouns, or allowing undue influence to some prepositional phrase that falls between the subject and verb. All of these indicate an inattentive editor.

Confusion of homonyms. Since the common lead for led won’t be caught by the spell-check function, a competent editor must have in his or her head dozens of the commonly confused homonyms. No time to look every last possibility up.

Evidence of superstition. If every none is singular regardless of context, if sentences have been cast awkwardly to avoid split infinitives or concluding prepositions, and if no adverbs have been allowed between the auxiliary and the main verb, then we should conclude that a rigid enforcer of what Arnold Zwicky calls “zombie rules” has been at the text, to the neglect of legitimate issues.

2. Style

Jargon. All kinds. There’s bureaucratic jargon, such as indulgence in noun-noun-noun constructions, often meaningless—oversight supervision program. Or the odd inflation of importance by dropping the definite article from the name of an agency—speaking not of the CIA but of CIA, as mere mortals speak of God. There is cop-speak jargon—The motorist was ejected from the vehicle. There’s medical euphemism—sufficient to cause discomfort for painful. All of these are indications that the editor has allowed the writer to address the article to its sources rather than its intended readers.

Metaphor. Similes, metaphors, and images are there to clarify points, to sharpen perspective. But mixed metaphors, distracting metaphors, and inept metaphors indicate that the editor has allowed the writer’s ambitions to outrun technique.

Mismatch of tone and subject. An article that is flippant about a serious subject, or serious about a frivolous one, merely irritates the reader. So also does language that inflates the subject. I once had to edit an article by a reporter who was too grand to cover a routine court story. Instead, he went on at length about the defendant, “a little old lady in a purple polyester pantsuit,” demonstrating his social superiority to an extent that obscured the actual point and outcome of the trial. Reducing the adjectival load alone nearly brought the article within the space allotted on the page.

3. Content

The one thing. A properly written article has a focus that is identified early on. So the main thing the article is about should be clearly stated. If there is some tedious, rambling introduction before the writer gets to the point, or if you have to wander back and forth amid a thicket of paragraphs to determine what the main point is, then the article has not been competently edited.

The transitions. Though an article should have one main point, it will develop through a series of subordinate points. If you have difficulty telling what the particular subordinate points are because they are not clearly identified by transitions, then no editor has clarified the organization of the article.

The math. Never trust the numbers. Some writers appear to imagine that the only difference between million and billion is an initial consonant. Always check the percentages; you will find that they have often been miscalculated. And make sure that percentages are accompanied by base numbers, without which they are meaningless.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:55 AM | | Comments (7)


The last three in particular seem like where an editor adds value, even if the writer can get a lot of the mechanics right.

Allowing for the notion that a list like this is most effective when short, it does seem like it invites amendment. :-) From our world:

- Consistent and precise use of vocabulary, especially technical terms.
- Correct use of trademarked names.
- Technical correctness, by which I mean a generalization of the point about "the math." In our world, this includes programming terms, keywords, and examples.

PS I think the evidence of adherence to zombie rules might actually be evidence of the hand of a _bad_ editor. (It's the kind of thing that, in my experience, exasperates people who already have limited incentive to submit text to an editor.)

Do you count using the right preposition for the context, or is that too esoteric?

No, no, no.

Here's the view from across the pond: all that is incidental. The first job of the sub is: is that true? Is that verified? Can I believe it ? Does the copy persuade me that the reporter has done enough work to convince me of what he is saying?

At Picky, I can't speak for John, but I'm wondering if your points were assumed.

Of course, if something's not true, verified and persuasive of both, the other points don't matter. But that alone isn't an indication that it's been edited.

A nice summary.

I agree with Picky however I think persuasive copy is also grammatically correct copy. Jarring misuse of language affects believability, even when the reader doesn't know why it is jarring.

However it goes without saying editors are fallible too. As evidenced by the misuse of the word "hear" (perhaps "her" was intended instead?) under the "confusion of homonyms" sub-head. No doubt a deliberate inclusion to draw our attention to our own failings.

Of course now I've pointed out a typo I'm sure to have made one myself.

I believe that Picky's point, with which I am in complete agreement, is that factual accuracy comes before everything else.

As to the typo, since fixed, I am always grateful for correction.

To me, the only good editing is unnoticable editing. Like acting, if I can see you doing it, you're doing it wrong.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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