Melanie Spiller & Coloratura Consulting
A Tonic for Ramshackle Wordsmiths
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Copyright Melanie Spiller 2011. Do not copy without permission.
Editorial Pet Peeves

After editing over 200 technical books and more articles, white papers, and abstracts than I care to count, I find that I have developed a bit of an attitude when I see the same really dumb (and very lazy) writing habits popping up here and there. I realize that many of the problems stem from having been told in creative writing classes to “write how you speak,” but what we got away with in those classes only works for a first draft in technical stuff.

 

Here are a few of my pet peeves, in no particular order of peevishness.

  • Spelling errors: Please check spelling. For goodness sake, hardly any programs don’t check your spelling anymore, and you are really lazy if you don’t just notice the fun little flags and give them a click. Editors are there to make sure you’ve used the right form of there/their/they’re and so forth, and that you made sense, not to spell “simultaneous” correctly.
  • Identify your work as yours: Imagine that thousands of documents grace the desk of the recipient. Vague nouns like “resume” or “book” for your document name pretty much ensure that the document will be lost. At the very least, put your name in there. It's what headers and footers are for.
  • Heading dyslexia: After you’ve written the piece, create another document and put all the headings and sub-headings in it without the text. You should be able to see a clear path in your headings from the introduction of the subject to the conclusion. (Of course, if you created an outline and wrote from it, you won’t have any problems here.) Then make sure that the paragraphs under each heading keep the promise made by it. And just as a bonus, try to make sure your heading says what’s in the section. Cute headings are fun at first glance, but if your goal is to make a useful document, keep that promise too.
  • While and since: “While” and “since” always have to do with the passage of time, or concurrency. Due to the evil influence of colloquial speech, you’ll find other meanings in your dictionary, but they are there to help non-native English speakers, not actually describe the meaning of the word. “While” always means the same thing as “during.” Please use “although” instead of “while” when you are about to show an exception to what you’ve just described, and use “as” or “but” instead of “since” unless you are talking about the passage of time.
  • However: This word means the same thing as “but.” You are about to display the sad other side of whatever you just presented. If you can’t substitute “but,” you can’t use “however.” This word suffers the ignominy of also being a caveat word.
  • Caveat words: Somehow, probably from academia, we have it in our heads that we need ergo, thus, therefore, and other such words to soften the blow of whatever it is we’re about to say. We don’t do it when we’re speaking very much (although my brother likes to say “interestingly” at the beginning of some sentences), and it just distracts from what we’re about to say in writing. These words have real meaning, and a careful reader will be thrown off by trying to make sense of what you’ve said and how you said it.
  • Gratuitous Latin: For the most part, you should say “that is” instead of “i.e.” (id est), “for example” instead of “e.g.” (example gratia), and if you really must, “thus” instead of “ergo.” Go ahead and use “etc.” occasionally instead of “and so forth,” but that’s really the only Latin you need. (Okay, maybe you need “et al” rather than “and all the other people.”) If you find that you need the Latin, for heaven’s sake, use it correctly. Loads of people know what it means.
  • Different and more: These poor words have taken a beating from marketing folks. These words are comparative. You can’t say that something is “different” without saying what it is different FROM, and you can’t say that something is “more” without saying what it is more THAN. Bonus: when you say that “there are 14 things,” you can say that “there are 14 different things” if you really need to emphasize that they are varied, but often, when you are trying not to enumerate items, you can use “various” instead. It’s clearer because it doesn’t imply comparison.
  • Dropping the noun/pronoun: Another hazard of colloquial speech is that we seem to be dropping the noun. It’s no wonder that there’s so much struggling with conjugating verbs correctly. “Seems like rain” should be “it seems like rain,” “felt ponderous” should be “the tome felt ponderous,” “took the train” should be “we took the train,” and so forth, or they are not complete sentences. Heck, when I was writing this bullet point, I wrote “No wonder there’s so much struggling…” It’s a problem.

 

These are my favorite pet peeves, and I’m sure you have your own. I’d enjoy hearing about them, and I’ll add them (if I like them) to my collection. I have a few more, but most warrant more than a paragraph, so I’ll save them for future blog entries.

 

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