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Inside the mind of a critical editor

Updated: May 10, 2020

1. Front-load important information

Make key actors or main ideas the subjects of your sentences. Readers want to know straight away what the sentence is about. Don’t confuse them by making the subject difficult or ambiguous to find.

When you delay information, you are lacking force in your prose.

See the following example of a weak sentence:

One who is an experienced advertising copywriter should have developed a variety of writing styles. A weak example would be:

After the awards ceremony is when the tenth anniversary celebration began.
Stronger: The tenth anniversary celebration followed the awards ceremony.

Be suspicious of dummy openers. There will be times when you’ll want to begin a sentence with a dummy opener, but opening most of your sentences with real subjects will make your writing more dynamic.

A weak example would be: there were three brokers who made bids on the stock.

Stronger: three brokers made bids on the stock.

2. Use be verbs sparingly

The forms of be (am, are is, been, being, was, were) serve as essential links in sentences but they are neutral and colourless.

So in the example:

‘the survey that was… recently conducted by the Chrysler Corporation MIS office ’

Instead say,

‘A recent Chrysler Corporation MIS survey revealed that frequent users of spreadsheets preferred Microsoft Excel..’

3. Make verbs active

if you favour the forms of be, you’re likely to also overuse the passive voice. The passive voice is when the subject receives the action.

Passive: The getaway car was driven by Wilson

Active: Wilson drove the getaway car.

Passive: Mistakes were made

Active: We made mistakes

The passive tends to make the style more impersonal, less connected to a real person so you’ll find them in rules and regulations, in insurance policies and in official explanations where liveliness is not the aim. So when we see this high school catalogue entry using the passive voice to describe a course called The Craft of Writing the style isn’t encouraging or lively.

‘much of the class will be devoted to reading each other’s work and the works of famous authors. Students will also be encouraged to prepare their best work for submission to local and national writing competitions.’

Here is a revised version using the active verbs:

Students will read works by class members and famous authors, while experimenting with new styles through daily assignments. Students can submit their best work to local and national writing competitions.

Remember the passive voice is very useful, don’t misinterpret this section as a caveat to avoid it altogether. Just be aware that passive verbs tend to bog down writing. The best advice: strive for active verbs and use passive sparingly.

4. Build sentences around verbs, not nouns

Another obstacle to lively writing is a fondness for noun phrases rather than shorter, more direct verbs. Unfortunately, somewhere in our schooling, many picked up the notion that it is more authoritative to say ‘formed an opinion’ rather than ‘thought’ or ‘came to the conclusion that’ instead of ‘concluded that.’ But busy readers shouldn’t have to wade through extra words to get the main idea, so working writers need to unlearn this fondness for nominalisation – using nouns and noun phrases instead of verbs.

Look at the following example:

Nouns: she had an understanding of the difference between the programs.

Verbs: she understood how the programs differed.

Nominalisation always requires more words and inevitably slows down the sentence.

5. Make every word count

Remove or replace trite, unnecessary or overly long phrases. For example, phrases like ‘all in all’, ‘in the final analysis’ are seldom needed. And others can be replaced by single words. See below:

At this point in time: Now

In today’s modern world: Today

Is in obvious needs of: needs

When all is said and done: finally

Stand the test of time: survive

Reduce clauses also beginning with that, which and who.

So the wordier option is:

‘Her brother, who lived in Chicago, commutes over three hours a day.

A better replacement would be: ‘her brother in Chicago commutes over three hours a day.’

Commonly misspelt words

Besides crafting effective sentences, successful writers need to use words correctly. Here are a list of words that are commonly misused.

Flaunt – to show off

Flout – disregard, scorn

Principal – head of school, head.

Principle – rule of conduct.

Allusion – reference. Example: the report contained two allusions to Hobson’s research.

Illusion – mistaken belief. Example: Hobson was under the illusion that his research would not be taken seriously.

A lot – many

Allot – to set aside or apportion. Example: the company allots each worker five days of personal leave.

Imply – to suggest

Infer – to conclude from hints or suggestions

Discrete – separate

Discreet – quiet, close mouthed

Who’s - contraction of who is

Whose – belonging or relating to whom.

Its – belonging to it. Example: you can’t tell a book by its cover.

It’s – contraction of it is. Example: it’s too late to change the plans.

Fewer – countably smaller. Example: fewer cars

Less – smaller, but not countably. Example: less pollution.

Exception: use less for units of money and time: less than five minutes, less than ten dollars.

We hope you can adopt some of these tips in your writing, but as always, a proofreader is required for even the 'best' writers out there. So, for any editing or proofreading enquiries, simply drop us an email at and we will get back to you immediately with a quote.

Reference: Writing on the Job by John C Brereton and Margaret A. Mansfield

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