Clean up your copy: 15 common writing errors
By Jaclyn Law
This crash course in copy editing will help you identify common problems in your writing, power up your prose and find solutions for copy conundrums.
Here are 15 common copy errors and how to solve them:
1. Useless adverbs and other words. They drag down your writing and often duplicate info, e.g., adverbs: He hurriedly raced to the car; She whispered softly in my ear. Too many verbs: We love helping you find new ways to save; He decided to think about cancelling the test. Try to tighten up sentences.
2. Vague pronouns. Words like it, this, they and she need well-defined antecedents. Unclear: Move the Ski-Doo from the truck and sell it; The coaches told the kids they would take a break; In the position paper, they stress the need for more awareness campaigns; Eric and Joe drove his car.
3. Overuse of passive voice. In active voice, the subject is doing the action to an object, e.g. The cat slurped the milk; cat = subject, milk = object. In passive voice, the target of the action is the subject: The milk was slurped by the cat. While not incorrect, passive voice makes writing clunkier. Police chased the thief (active) is more compelling than The thief was chased by police (passive). Passive can also seem evasive; compare Mistakes were made to the active version: We made mistakes.
4. Misplaced modifiers. Modifiers are words or phrases that modify other words. If they’re in the wrong place or too far from what you’re modifying, sentences can be confusing (and funny): The witness saw the crime outside the garage or A DVD sat on the shelf that I watched. A modifier is “dangling” if the subject’s unclear or absent: Chewing on the sofa, I scolded my dog; Growing up, Dad taught me to build rockets; Dripping with gravy, Mom served the turkey. “Squinting” modifiers are ambiguous: The cop asked the parolee regularly to check in or She said eventually she’d ask.
5. Comma splices a.k.a. run-on sentences. This happens when you use a comma to join two independent clauses (groups of words with a subject + verb that express a complete thought). Instead, use a period, semicolon, colon or dash to separate, or join them with a comma and a coordinating conjunction (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so). Instead of She called 911, he started CPR, you could have She called 911. He started CPR. or She called 911, and he started CPR. Sometimes, we use comma splices for effect (I came, I saw, I conquered).
6. Faulty agreement. Check that subjects and verbs agree in number. Incorrect: Recent reports from the lab identifies the virus as a new strain; A customer should voice their concerns. Also, nouns and pronouns should agree. Incorrect: After one passes the course, you can drive a bus.
7. Sentence fragments. Incomplete sentences, missing a verb or subject, e.g., Money strewn on the floor (no main verb) or Crossed the road (no subject). Use fragments for effect, but don’t overdo it.
8. Faulty parallel structure. Parallel grammatical elements are elegant. When they’re off, the sentence is awkward, e.g., He likes swimming, reading and goes fishing; She hoped to visit museums and trying new foods; He works slowly and with great care; The play criticizes bureaucracy, celebrates activism and diversity. (Last one corrected: The play criticizes bureaucracy and celebrates activism and diversity OR The play criticizes bureaucracy, celebrates activism and promotes diversity.)
9. Overuse of quotations. Take ownership of information and say things in your own words—don’t just fill articles with quote after quote, especially if the content is redundant.
10. Overly fancy or cluttered quote attributions. There’s nothing wrong with using said repeatedly. Don’t get too fancy, e.g., elaborated, pontificated, extolled. Don’t use non-verbal verbs for quotes, e.g., “Yes,” she smiled. Avoid title pile-ups: “I support this protest,” says author, professor and Save the Forests committee chair Dr. Jay Toth. (Put titles after the name, and use fewer titles.)
11. Clichés and jargon. Avoid overused phrases and promo-speak. Also avoid mixing metaphors: That’s second potatoes; It’s not rocket surgery; We're treading on thin water here.
12. Wordiness. Cut excess baggage. Watch especially for sentences starting with it is, there is or there are. Examples: There is a drug dealer who lives on my street vs. A drug dealer lives on my street; The verdict was very shocking vs. The verdict was shocking; He missed the plane due to the fact that his taxi broke down vs. He missed the plane because his taxi broke down. Look for “echoes” (conspicuous repeated words, especially if close together) and replace unless doing so is awkward.
13. Using the wrong dash. There are five kinds of dashes. The three you should know: 1) Hyphen (-): Joins words (10-year-old girl; Jean-Paul Gaultier). 2) En-dash (–): For ranges (May–June; The score was 10–5) and joining open compounds (New Zealand–South Korea soccer match). 3) Em-dash (—): Used for interruption, emphasis or interjection of info (Eating vegetables—the more colourful, the better—is healthy; Sign the contract—after you get the deposit.) Not all fonts have all types of dashes.
14. Using foot marks instead of smart quotes. Quote marks and apostrophes should be curly (a.k.a. smart quotes). Straight marks are foot marks (") and are used only for feet and inches. Watch for foot marks sneaking into your copy, especially if text has been copied and pasted from another source.
15. Biased, patronizing and outdated language. Write using inclusive language. Use gender-neutral terms (chairperson, flight attendant, humankind, actor). Don’t mention race, sexual orientation, nationality or ability unless it’s relevant. Rethink words: exotic, Asian, flesh-coloured, nude, invalid, wheelchair-bound—what do they mean? Recommended reading: A Way with Words and Images: Suggestions for the portrayal of people with disabilities (Google it).
Jaclyn Law is a freelance writer, editor and copy editing instructor in Toronto.
These notes have been adapted from a presentation on copy editing given by Law at Canadian University Press NASH75.