The 2 Issues I Most Frequently Address When Copy-Editing

In the last eight years or so, I’ve done a fair bit of copy-editing. For example, I’ve edited some books and copy-edited every issue of Themelios since TGC took over that journal in 2008. For the last three years I’ve been editing a massive forthcoming project that will probably be about 1 million words (more on that later).

Here’s my basic philosophy of writing in six words: Omit needless words, and be clear (HT: Strunk, Zinsser, and Williams). There’s a lot more to good writing than that, of course, but it’s hard to communicate well when your writing is cluttered and convoluted.

So I most frequently address two issues when copy-editing:

1. Avoid nominalizations.

Nominalizations are nouns that derive from verbs. Try to use verbs instead of the related nouns when possible. For example,

  • emphasize > emphasis
  • discover > discovery
  • react > reaction
  • fail > failure
  • summarize > summary
  • observe > observation

Don’t write, “John places an emphasis on faith.” Better: “John emphasizes faith.”

Don’t write, “Paul presents a summary of justification by faith.” Better: “Paul summarizes justification by faith.”

Joseph Williams says, “In some cases nominalizations are useful, even necessary,” but usually they muddy sentences and decrease clarity significantly.

2. Avoid passives.

In general, use the active voice rather than the passive voice. There are exceptions when the passive voice is better, but it should be the salt and pepper of a meal, not the steak.

Don’t write, “Eli’s sons were killed by God.” Better: “God killed Eli’s sons.”

Don’t write, “The book was written by Paul.” Better: “Paul wrote the book.”

* * * * * * *

See “Clarity,” Williamschapter 2 in this book:

Joseph M. Williams (with two chapters coauthored by Gregory G. Colomb). Style: Toward Clarity and Grace. 2nd ed. Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, and Publishing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. See especially pp. 29-43.

Related:

  1. Six Useful Books on Writing
  2. Wordsmithy
  3. Charlotte’s Web: A Model of Good Writing

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