Time for a trim

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‘Without doubt, the ability to summarize is one of the most critical skills in the editor’s toolbox. Drafts can be much too wordy and verbose, sentences too lengthy, and paragraphs — frequently stuffed with subordinate clauses and parentheses — just too complex to allow the reader to understand the meaning with any immediacy. To be able to capture what is being communicated in a way that preserves its essential meaning while reducing the word-count is an invaluable asset, and one that should be applied more regularly than it is: the job of a good editor is to remove what is surplus to requirements while keeping what is important.’

Whoa — hang on a moment! That opening paragraph is a perfect example of some prose that could really do with a haircut. It’s composed of just three sentences, but contains over a hundred words — far more than necessary.

A quick analysis shows that the paragraph has just two main points: it explains what a summary is for, and expresses the opinion that summarizing is something every good editor should be able to do. Yet the piece of writing as a whole is full of repeated and redundant phrases.  For example, ‘wordy’,  ‘verbose’ and ‘lengthy’ all mean pretty much the same thing. It should be possible to combine all these words into one.

The long second sentence is also a candidate for editing. It suffers from exactly the mistakes it describes: too many clauses bunched together. It can be considerably simplified by cutting it down to a single clause with one main verb: ‘Drafts are often too complex for readers to understand at first sight’.

In the final sentence, we read that good editing ‘preserves essential meaning while reducing the word-count’, and at the same time that an editor should ‘remove what is surplus to requirements while keeping what is important’. This is saying the same thing in two different ways. One of these sentences must go.

Here are my own attempts at a summary. I have set myself targets, respectively, of 50 words, 30 words and 10 words.

50-word target:

‘The ability to summarize is a critical skill for editors. Drafts are often too complex and lengthy for readers to understand straightaway. A good editor should be able to reduce the word-count while preserving the essence of a piece of writing. And they should do so more often than they do.’ (51 words)

30-word target:

‘Summarizing is a critical skill for editors. Drafts can be too complex to understand straightaway. Editors should therefore reduce word-counts while preserving meaning, and do so regularly.’ (27 words)

10-word target:

‘Good editing includes the ability to reduce length while preserving meaning.’ (11 words)

Just another link in the chain

In the family of punctuation marks, there are three horizontal strokes, each with a very different function. In ascending order of length, they are the hyphen, the en dash and the em dash; and they look like this: ‘-’, ‘–’, and ‘—’.

The shortest of the three, the hyphen, links two or more words together to make a single unit of meaning, usually a compound adjective:

  • My five-year-old child has just started school.
  • You will enjoy this television’s cutting-edge features.

Please note, however, that if they are not being used as a compound adjective the words should not be hyphenated.

  • My child is five years old.
  • The television is at the cutting edge of technology.

The en dash, so called because it is the same width as a printed lower-case ‘n’, is used to join two equal components where there is a logical connection or opposition:

  • Did you watch the Barcelona–Juventus match?
  • I am taking the Glasgow–London express tomorrow morning
  • Susanna West, CEO 2008–2016.

In these examples, the first ‘en’-dash serves as an alternative for ‘versus’ or ‘against’. In the next two sentences, it replaces the word ‘to’. Please note, however, that the word ‘to’ should be used if it is paired with ‘from’: ‘She was CEO from 2008 to 2016′; ‘the train from Glasgow to London’.

The em dash, as its name implies, is the width of a printed lower-case ‘m’, and double the length of an en dash. It is used singly to replace an introductory punctuation mark such as a colon, or in pairs as a form of parenthesis:

  • Corfu is the most beautiful of the islands — green, serene, and relaxed.
  • Just then — and it really was unexpected — there came the hoot of an owl.

So next time you want to just throw up your hands and exclaim ‘Oh, dash it all!’, just be careful which one you mean…

The ‘-ize’ have it

Many British English speakers disapprove of spellings such as ‘criticize’ or ‘modernize’, as if the letter ‘z’ were some devilish American plot designed to ruin ‘traditional’ English spelling forever.

Yet if these same diehards were to pick up a novel by, say, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy or George Eliot, they might be surprised at the sheer number of words spelt in this way: ‘apologize’, ‘organize’, ‘recognize’, ‘sympathize’, ‘utilize’; the list goes on.

In fact, in the literature of the 19th century this spelling is far more common than the alternative ‘-ise’ which many English children are still taught at school today.

The spelling with ‘z’ is preferred by the vast majority of British authors and editors from the eighteenth century to the present. It derives originally from the ‘-ize’ ending of Greek words such as ‘ostracize’ and ‘baptize’. And to this day the Oxford English Dictionary gives ‘-ize’ as the preferred spelling, and lists ‘-ise’ as a variant.

Of course there are always detractors who insist on using the French-derived ‘-ise’ for all verbs, irrespective of the words’ origins. Among their number are Emily and Charlotte Bronte (but not sister Anne), and the Times newspaper (which changed from ‘-ize’ to ‘-ise’ as recently as 1992).

As you might expect, there are exceptions to everything that I have written above. These include verbs whose Latin stem ends with ‘-vise’ (‘advise’, ‘devise’, ‘supervise’), ‘-prise’ (‘surprise’, ‘comprise’, ‘reprise’), ‘-cise’ (‘exercise’, ‘circumcise’) or ‘mise’ (‘promise’, ‘compromise’, ‘surmise’). All should be spelt with ‘s’, as should ‘analyse’ and ‘catalyse’, both of which share the Greek stem ‘-lys-‘, from the verb ‘luo’, to loosen or untie.

Some exceptions to the rule: 


Words, words, words

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Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a character who spends time playing with words rather than getting on with the task in hand – avenging his father’s murder.

Well, that’s the traditional view. After all, he’s usually shown clutching the famous skull, musing about life and death, rather than dealing with practical consequences. Even the length of the play Hamlet is offered as evidence that its main character procrastinates too much.

But Hamlet has studied at university, and knows the importance of gathering evidence; and little by little we see him assembling the jigsaw, until (rather like Hercule Poirot) he has enough facts to gather the family for the grand ‘reveal’ — and with certainty point the finger at the perpetrator of the crime.

He may not be a man of action, but Hamlet is no shirk. Actually he achieves his goal because he works hard at it. When a group of actors arrives at court, he takes matters into his own hands. He even goes so far as to edit the script of their play to tell the story of his father’s death — so he can read the reactions on the audience’s faces.

Hamlet knows that each word is an essential unit of meaning, and that a sentence carefully delivered can have the power of a sword.

Presented with a text to communicate — however brief — all editors must weigh up the various options and construct as careful a version as possible in order to address not just our clients’ expectations, but our own as well.