Technical Mastery: editing quality non-fiction

There’s something wonderful about editing a really good piece of work. With sub-standard pieces, ‘editing’ often comes closer to ‘rewriting’. Anyone who has been editing for a while will have come across pieces that can’t even be rewritten: there’s so much red that you slowly realise you’ve been writing the piece from scratch, keeping in the odd definite article and the occasional noun.

But when you get something wonderful to work on the process is energising and collaborative. Instead of writing twenty comments per page about what is lacking, what is unclear, what is illogical, you can ask questions and point out alternatives: you can engage with the writer as a colleague and partner. With good work, you remain an editor and get credit for an editorial contribution. When what you’re editing is a gigantic mess, you end up being a co-author, or even the primary author… but you don’t get any credit. This isn’t just frustrating: it brings some serious ethical issues into play. But that’s a discussion for another day.

So what does an editor do with a really good piece of work? I’m currently editing a fantastic PhD thesis. The examples below are drawn from this project, though I’ve changed the nature of the argument so that I can discuss the editorial issues while ensuring that the writer isn’t identifiable.

The above excerpt from AAAA is mirrored in the claim of BBBB that…

Coming directly under a block-quote, much of this clause is redundant. Why not ‘AAAA’s argument is mirrored in’ or even ‘This is mirrored in’? Why waste words pointing out the obvious: that the subject of discussion is the preceding quotation?

The other thing to consider is whether there is a good reason to use the passive voice here. Actually, there’s a good reason not to. You’ve just presented quotation A: why then say that this reflects quotation B? Surely that indicates that B is the primary quotation – in which case why not quote from B to begin with?

Instead of a 13-word clause in the passive voice that implies a somewhat dubious logical relationship between two key sources, why not use ‘This mirrors BBBB’s claim that’. This leaves you with 5 words in the active voice and a clear, logical relationship between the two sources.

The ways in which multiple, contradictory versions of this event are described will be explored.

This statement of the first chapter’s objective is problematic. Why use the passive voice? This is what the writer is going to do… or does the writer intend to indicate that she’s going to try to do this but isn’t sure she will succeed? Not a very encouraging start.

Be bold when laying out your objectives: say “This is what I’m going to do.” It’s for the reader to judge whether you’ve succeeded, but you can at least set out with conviction and determination.

Instead of ‘The chapter will explore’ – active voice but future tense – why not just ‘The chapter explores’? It’s best to use the present tense: the chapter has been written, so why go for the more tentative ‘will explore’ (as in ‘it will do this once it’s written’)?

AAAA and BBBB are critics, as well as authors, and this is the focus of the literary criticism in which they appear.

Beware pronouns. What is the focus here? What is “this”? Is “this” the fact that AAAA and BBBB have created two very different types of text or the fact that they are authors? It’s probably the former, but why not just say that? A lot of writers – of fiction and non-fiction – seem to have a fear of specifying: they seem to think it’s clunky to keep naming names. But pronouns are actually a huge headache for readers: the reader has to keep reminding him/herself what the pronoun represents.

Plus think about the psychology of what’s going on (this is more a point about fiction). Think about parents giving interviews about missing children. They keep saying the child’s name. Names help to make people real to us. Why not use the same principles in your writing to make your characters present to your readers?

Don’t go too far the other way and write ‘Richard went to the park. Richard fed the ducks. Richard went home and there Richard made a sandwich’. Instead, try something like ‘Richard went to the park. He fed the ducks and then went home. At home, Richard made a sandwich’. As a rule of thumb, don’t have more than two pronouns in a row: after two pronouns in a row, use the character’s name. Note, however, that this is a rule of thumb for he/she/it/this, etc., not for I/we/you… And only applies when there’s one person in the frame. Names are critical when the same pronoun could refer to more than one character.

This rule is a good one to follow for non-fiction as well. If you’re writing an essay, it’s much better to be specific: it helps keep your argument tight and clear. Better to err on the side of specifying more often than is needed than to use too many pronouns and risk confusing your reader (or, worse yet, your marker if you’re a student!).

This issue becomes significant when authors engage with the portrayals of different forms of Britishness.

Why “the” portrayals? Is the author talking about very specific portrayals or the portrayals created by a few specific authors? The use of “when authors” implies that a general view is being taken, so the writer is probably seeking to make a general point. The implied mis-match of specificity creates a sense of logical inconsistency, rendering the argument far less tight and persuasive.

Two books which make substantial use of these sources are…

The clause should either read ‘Two books, which make substantial use of these sources are’ or ‘Two books that make substantial use of these sources are’. This is because ‘which’ marks a clause as non-restrictive, while ‘that’ marks a clause as restrictive. This isn’t just a fancy, futz-y technical difference: it’s actually quite important in terms of the logic of what you’re saying. The ‘which’ version of the clause indicates that the two books in question just happen to use “these sources” but the fact that they do isn’t particularly important: it’s an extra bit of interesting but non-essential info. The ‘that’ version of the clause indicates that the two books are identified by the fact they use “these sources”.

It’s very unlikely that the author would want to use the ‘which’ version. I’m pretty sure the author wants to emphasise that these books rely specifically on “these sources”. If so, the clause must be restrictive, so the ‘that’ version must be used.

The line between “factual” and “fictional” literature, which is usually thought so distinct…

There should be single quotation marks around the words ‘factual’ and ‘fictional’. Save double quotation marks for actual quotations (NB: quote is a verb, quotation is a noun) and for dialogue. Single quotation marks are used when you’re simply trying to mark a particular word out: for example, to question its usual meaning (as here). Also note that ‘which’ is used correctly here as the clause after the comma is non-restrictive.

It doesn’t matter whether you use the terms restrictive/non-restrictive, but it is important to understand that, in this instance, good grammar can actually tighten the logic of your argument, while bad grammar can introduce a degree of logical inconsistency and weaken it. In other words, it doesn’t matter if you recognise this as a restrictive/non-restrictive issue but it does matter whether you made the right choice between ‘that’ and ‘which’. The same is true for all the other little, finicky things explored here: it doesn’t matter if you know all the technical terms, but mastering the technical aspects of good writing does matter. After all, who doesn’t want to get their point across as clearly as possible?

But even more than that, it’s important to understand how these little technical things can help you communicate more effectively, whether you’re trying to make a tight, persuasive argument or draw the reader into a fictional world. It’s amazing how much can be accomplished by getting these little details right. If your grammar is ‘good enough’, you can build a solid, basic structure: if it’s superb, you can create a unique skeleton to flesh out with wonderful phrases and spot-on adjectives. With true mastery, you can make technical choices that convey your unique voice as writer, adding a new layer to what is unique and interesting in your work. Above all, if you’ve got technical mastery, you can wield grammar as a tool, rather than having it control you: this opens up a world of different options and choices, freeing you  to focus on the higher level (and far more interesting) issue of content rather than the basics of form.


Where to start with polishing your writing

Three good places to start but not to finish: Strunk and White’s Elements of Style ;; and

Like the three resources above, this strange-looking site is a good place to start if you’re going to be teaching writing:

Three good resources for once you’ve got a handle on the basics: The Penguin Guide to English Punctuation; The Penguin the Guide to Plain English; and The Penguin Dictionary of English Grammar.

An excellent ‘home study’ guide that’s also a really good reference and ‘brush up’ tool: Trevor Horwood’s Freelance Proofreading and Copy-editing.

Never underestimate the value of thesaurus. Roget’s is online here

Although not very professional, both of these sites have some pretty good resources:; and

Finally, for Harvard-style referencing:

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