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How to Make an Editor Swear

Typically, I don’t use salty language. So, if you hear an expletive while I’m editing, I guarantee it’s because of one thing.


It’s the bane of my copywriting existence and the number one enemy of clarity. What do I mean by abstraction? It’s what happens when someone takes a simple, straightforward message like this:

Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water.
Jack fell down and broke his crown, and Jill came tumbling after.

And writes it in an impersonal, indirect way, like this:

The intention behind the scaling of the incline was the retrieval of a water vessel.
An unexpected descent resulted in the breaking of a crown, with an occurrence of tumbling thereafter.

Sure, it sounds ridiculous in a child’s nursery rhyme. Yet this style is commonplace in corporate, academic, and legal writing. What audience has the mental energy to wade through all that abstraction to get to the real meaning?

This is where I come in, with my brutal red pen and my cussing ways. As I edit, I constantly ask myself:

Who are the main characters? And what are they doing?

I’ll be honest. It’s surprisingly hard to answer these questions when I’m dealing with abstract writing. Still, I figure it’s better for me to find the answers than to force the poor readers to do it. The best would be to write clearly from the start.

So, for the public good and my sanity – and to save my coworkers’ tender ears – I’m going to share two ways to avoid abstract writing. (I learned them from this book. My own copy is dog-eared from use.)

1.  Express the main characters as subjects.
2.  Express their actions as verbs.

It’s as simple as that. Instead of saying, “A solution to the problem was achieved,” you would say, “We solved the problem.” In the second version, the characters and their action are 100% clear. There are, of course, many other tips for writing clearly, and you can read some of them here.

Nonetheless, I believe that these two are the best way to fight our common writing enemy.

And send that $*&@ing abstraction to &*%$!



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