Words are the lifeblood of writing. Combining in myriad ways like the coloured pieces in a kaleidoscope, they can create wondrous effects – or muddy, lifeless, pompous prose that sends readers to sleep.So word choice needs to be a major focus for editors, whether editing their own work or that of others.
Here are five word blunders for editors to eliminate:
Cut out the clichéd. Why use a tired adjective or turn of phrase if you can come up with something fresh and powerful? When travel writer Alexander Frater wanted to describe a coconut palm, he wrote that it might look fragile but it was ‘tough and whippy enough to survive typhoons and tidal waves.’ Wouldn’t you have loved to come up with ‘whippy’, a word so unusual in this context and yet so perfect?
Go for the jugular of jargon. Jargon, the specialised language experts in any field use, is a barrier to many readers. They won’t appreciate not being able to understand you and the feeling that you are trying to foist a secret language on them.
Rip out repetition. Examine every word in the text. Is it doing a job, or is it simply repeating something contained in the meaning of another word? Editors need to look out for careless package deals like ‘unexpected surprise.’ What is a surprise but something unexpected?
Abolish the abstract. Abstract words are beloved of academics. Of course they do have a place if you are a philosopher or a theoretician. But your reader will often find abstract concepts confusing or pretentious. Bring them down to earth with concrete words. As top Australian editor Janet Mackenzie wrote: ‘Discourage authors from saying the leadership when they mean the leaders, methodology when they mean methods, profitability when they mean profit.’
Purge the pompous. Modern style is conversational. Lose Dickensian or legalistic words like notwithstanding (despite), accordingly (so), commence (begin) and cognisant (aware).
Tony Spencer-Smith of Express Editors is running Editing Essentials over four Wednesday evenings from 30 July.