Tag Archives: copyediting

Red Ink Beer-Video Writing Instruction

In this episode of Red Ink Beer, David Bowman, owner of Precise Edit and author of 9 writing guides,

Writing skills are demonstrated with examples and instruction. For more information about David Bowman’s writing guides, please visit http://hostileediting.com.

What’s in this episode?

Part One, Reader’s Question: Do you put a comma between complicated items in a short list?

Part Two, Writing Strategy: Basic paragraph  structure using the 3 Cs, with a focus on establishing context.

Part Three, Writing Fail: A snotty Twitter user gets schooled in manners.

Video: 11 minutes.


Hi, I’m David Bowman, the owner and chief editor of Precise Edit and the author of now 9 writing guides, all available over at HostileEditing.com. In this episode of Red Ink Beer, we’ll do three things.
First, we will answer a question from one of my readers over at the Zen Comma blog (http://zencomma.wordpress.com). We will also take a look at a new writing strategy having to do with paragraphs. And finally, we’ll take a look at a major writing fail from my very favorite source of writing failures, #grammer on Twitter.

All right, well let’s take a look at the reader question.

Reader’s Question

The Question

Last week, a visitor over at the Zen Comma blog posted the following question for me.

Hi, Mr. Bowman. Is the placement of the comma correct for this sentence: “Monday’s reception will feature two types of sandwiches: pineapple and cream cheese, and marinated bell peppers and goat cheese.”

The question is concerning that comma after “cream cheese.” Let’s take a closer look at the sentence and answer this question

The Answer

We can solve this problem by looking at a similar sentence.

“Monday’s reception will feature two types of entertainment: clowns and a puppet show.”

Here, we see that there is no comma after the word “clowns,” and this is correct. This shows that there is not supposed to be a comma in that position. When we apply this to the original sentence and take out that comma, this is what we get.

“Monday’s reception will feature two types of sandwiches: pineapple and cream cheese and marinated bell peppers and goat cheese.”

The problem for the reader is that we have no idea what the ingredients are for each individual sandwich, but it is correct.

What makes this question really interesting is the fact that if we follow the comma rule and leave the comma out where it is not supposed to be, the sentence is less clear. Now, the main purpose of commas is to make a sentence more clear, not less. But the comma is not supposed to be here in this particular case, yet, if we take the comma out so that we follow the comma rules exactly, the sentence is less clear than when we break the rule and put it in.

Fortunately, we have some solutions to this. It’s going to take a bit more than just moving that comma, putting it in or taking it out. Instead, I think we need to take a look at different ways that we can reorganize or revise the sentence. Let’s take a look at some examples and see if we can come up with one that is going to make the sentence more clear and still allow us to use correct punctuation.

Solution 1

We have a few solutions we can use. First, we can simply number the sandwiches.

“Monday’s reception will feature two types of sandwiches: (1) pineapple and cream cheese and (2) marinated bell peppers and goat cheese.”

We tell the reader, this is what’s in the first one; this is what’s in the second one. It doesn’t look very pretty, but it does solve the problem.

Solution 2

Another option is to repeat the word “sandwich.”

“Monday’s reception will feature two types of sandwiches: pineapple and cream cheese sandwiches and marinated bell peppers and goat cheese sandwiches.”

This also isn’t very pretty because it makes the sentence too wordy and too redundant.

Solution 3

My favorite solution is this one.

“Monday’s reception will feature two types of sandwich:

  • pineapple and cream cheese and
  • marinated bell peppers and goat cheese.”

Let’s just make a little bulleted list. Now, the commas are correct, and the reader will know exactly sandwich has for its ingredients. This works great.

Additional thoughts

What have we learned from this? We have learned that it is, in fact, possible to follow the rules exactly and still produce clear, readable language—clear, readable sentences, which is what I have been saying all along.

When we have a problem like this, we really do have to think about not just a single element in the sentence, like a comma in this case, but also we need to look at the entire sentence structure, what it is that we are trying to communicate. That’s how we solved this problem. Instead of just adding or subtracting a comma, we had to look at the overall sentence, figure out what it is that we’re trying to communicate, and then structure the sentence in such a way that we can follow the rules and still make sense.

Writing Strategy: Paragraph Context

Let’s turn our attention now to the writing tip for the evening. This strategy is going to come from one of my writing guides: Concise Guide to Technical and Academic Writing, available in print, obviously, but also available in PDF and Kindl on the HostileEditing.com website, where I have all of my books.

Tonight, what we’re going to look at is paragraphing. In particular, how do you start a good paragraph?

Major Elements of a Paragraph: Three Cs

Every paragraph has three major elements, which we call the “3 Cs.” The first is Context. The second is Content. And the third is Conclusion. Each paragraph describes and discusses one main idea—and only one idea, which means that what we do at the beginning of a paragraph is very important because we need to introduce to the reader what is the singular idea that is going to be discussed in this paragraph.

What Is the Context?

The context becomes very important. Not only are we telling the reader, “Here’s what we are going to talk about in this paragraph; here’s what this paragraph is about,” but we also need to make sure that the beginning of one paragraph links us to the ideas presented in the prior paragraphs. Also, and just as importantly, why this information, why this idea is going to be useful to the reader. All of this takes place in the first couple of sentences, which we call the context to the paragraph.

Let’s take a look at a sample paragraph here, find the context, and see if it does these three things:

  1. Introduce the main idea of the paragraph
  2. Connect it to the prior paragraph
  3. Inform the reader why this is important to you.

Sample Context

Here we are looking at the end of one paragraph and the beginning of a second paragraph. It’s this second paragraph that we’re going to study carefully.

…The family nurse should never try to treat patients in these types of cases if they do not have the skill, resources, or knowledge to provide appropriate care.

The Texas State Board of Nursing regulates the practice and licensures of nurse practitioners in the State of Texas. The Nurse Practitioner Practice Act in Texas defines the responsibilities and scope of practice of the nurse practitioners, and the board regulates the range of activities and services and the qualifications for practice. The Act is intended to protect…

The first sentence in the second paragraph is establishing the context. It tells the reader, “Here’s what this paragraph is going to be about. Here’s the main idea that we’ll be discussing, in this case the regulations and licensure for nurses.”

This does link to the prior information. “Nurse practitioner” connects to “nurse practitioner,” and “skill” from paragraph one connects to “practice” described in paragraph two. So, that’s a nice linkage there.

And, finally, it’s important to the reader because they are aspiring nurses in this case, so it’s important for them to know what regulates their practice.

Ok, that example was fairly simple, but hopefully it gives you an idea about how to start a really great paragraph.

Paragraphing: The Most Important Skill

If there were one thing I would like to teach people how to do with their writing, one thing that would make the most important and most significant improvement in their writing, it would be paragraphing. In fact, I’ve often said that of the hundreds of graduate-level students that we’ve worked with over the years on their dissertations and papers and so on, if there’s one thing that I wish they would understand, it’s paragraphing. They often have really great ideas and information, but it’s hard to find what those ideas are because they haven’t clearly defined them in their paragraphs.

How the Context Helps the Writer

If you get your paragraph started right with a good context, it does a couple of things. Not only does it inform the reader “Here’s what this is going to be about; here’s the idea I’m going to talk about,” but it also has a big advantage for the writer because it allows you to keep straight in your own mind, “This is the only thing I need to discuss at this point.”

If we find when we’re writing that we have information in the paragraph that doesn’t relate to the idea described in the context, we know it needs to be taken out of that paragraph and put somewhere else. Also, if we find that we’re pretty much done describing and discussing the idea that is introduced in the context, then we know it’s probably time to start another paragraph. This follows the basic rule that each paragraph is about one, and only one, idea. When you’re ready to start another idea, then it’s time to start another paragraph.

So, that’s tonight’s tip from one of the writing guides, all of which are available over at HostileEditing.com.

Writing Fail

Now, as I promised you, we’re going to take a look at a major writing fail from one of the greatest sources of writing goofs and gaffs that I’m aware of and that I use, Twitter.

Here’s the original tweet from Twitter:

“Why do people insist on talking loudly on the gone so ever1 can here them”

You see that this person misspelled the word “here.” But that’s not the writing fail that we’re going to be discussing.

What happens next is really interesting because somebody else comes along and says, “Aha! He has a misspelling, and I’m going to fix it.” Here is the response:

“hear them” #grammer

When he tries to embarrass the first guy, he misspells the word “grammar” himself! So, that’s the major fail.

I think that what we learn from this is if you’re going to correct somebody’s spelling, grammar, or punctuation, you really need to make sure that yours is also correct.


That’s it for this episode of Red Ink Beer. I hope you will stop by and take a look at the writing guides, all available over at HostileEditing.com. We just finished number 9 [Common Sense Guide to Grammar and Punctuation], and it’s going out on Kindle pretty quickly. I’m sure that if you take a look, you’ll find one that’s just perfect for you.

That’s it for tonight. I’m David Bowman with Precise Edit. You can find my writing guides at HostileEditing.com. Best wishes to you. Thank you.

Editing Services: PreciseEdit.com

Writing Guides: HostileEditing.com

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Use concluding words to state your main point.

When you are writing a document to persuade your reader about an idea, you present your supporting ideas or evidence leading up to the main point. If you do this well, your reader will come to the same conclusion that you are trying to make.

To show that you have finished making your argument (i.e., completed writing about the reasons for your idea) and are about to state the main idea, you use a concluding word. A concluding word tells the reader, “Based on this information, I conclude that . . . .” Sample concluding words and phrases are thus, therefore, in conclusion, and as a consequence.

These concluding words provide a signpost for the reader. They say, “I’m done giving the evidence, and now I’m going to tell you the idea that I want you to believe.”

You may be able to make your main point without them. However, they are very effective for helping the reader identify what it is you want them to understand.

This is the strategy for day 81 in 300 Days of Better Writing, available at Hostile Editing in PDF, Kindle, and paperback formats.

For a sample of 300 Days of Better Writing and other books by Precise Edit, download the free ebook.

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Three Strategies for Writing to Your Reader

Here are three tips from 300 Days of Better Writing about how to understand your readers and give them what they need.

Day 110: Be prepared to work hard at your writing.

Easy reading is damned hard writing.

(Nathaniel Hawthorne)

(Please excuse the curse word. It may indicate Hawthorne’s
frustration with the work necessary to produce good writing, or it
may indicate the strength with which Hawthorne believes this.)

The point of this quote is that clear, easy-to-read writing is not easy
to produce. Instead, it is the result of writing, analyzing what you
write, and re-writing—perhaps many times.

When you write, you are attempting to communicate. The more work
you put into writing, the better you will be able to communicate.
Hard work by you leads to easy understanding by your reader.

People have told me, “Writing is so easy for you.” This isn’t true. I
have practiced writing, studied writing, and analyzed what makes
writing clear. The documents they read are the result of much work:
writing, criticizing, and rewriting until they are “easy reading.”
That’s what great writers aim for: not easy writing but easy reading. Continue reading


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3 Strategies to Make Bad Information Sound Good

Sometimes, things are not as good as you expect. Sometimes, the truth hurts. Sometimes, you are not perfect. And you have to write about it. These three strategies will help you write about bad, or embarrassing, information in a way that makes the bad information sound better than it is. You need to tell the truth; that’s a given. But you can tell it in a way that produces a positive, or less, bad reaction from your reader. 

Day 146: Put a positive spin on negative information by writing not + [positive term] + [excuse].

When we talk about spin, spinning, or putting a spin on information, we mean writing information in a manner that leads to a particular interpretation. This is used to make good news seem bad or unimportant. This is also used to make potentially unpleasant information seem more acceptable. Spin is very common in the media and political world, but it is also used in everyday writing and speech. You will have to decide for yourself whether or not this is ethical. Continue reading

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Action Verbs Good. Nominalizations Bad

What are nominalizations?

Nominalizations are the noun forms of action verbs, as seen Table 1.

Table 1: Sample action verbs and corresponding nouns (nominalizations)

Sample action verbs

Corresponding nouns

increase (v)

increase (n)

Why are they bad, and how do I fix them?

Nominalizations have multiple negative effects.

1. They make sentences less concise.
2. They increase the noun-to-verb ratio.
3. They make sentences difficult to understand.
4. They make reading tedious.

Nominalizations often force writers to add additional words to sentences. Changing nominalizations back to action verbs often decreases the number of words needed to communicate the idea, as seen here:

Example 1a, with nominalization: “The commencement of the ceremony will be at noon.”
Example 1b, with action verb: “The ceremony will commence at noon.” Continue reading

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Active Voice and Passive Voice

Active and Passive Voice

When you are active, you do something. When you are passive, things happen to you. This is the same concept as the active and passive voice in sentences.

In the active voice, the subject performs the main action. In the passive voice, the main action is done to the subject.

Example D.1a, active voice: “The service team collected the parts.” (subject: service team; main verb: collected)
Example D.1b, passive voice: “The parts were collected by the service team.” (subject: parts; main verb: collected)

To determine whether your sentence is active or passive, ask, “Is the subject doing the verb?” If the answer is Yes, then the sentence is active. If the answer is No, the sentence is passive. In example D.1a, the subject did the action, so the sentence is active. In example D.1b, the action was done to the subject, so the sentence is passive.

If we describe this concept as a formula, we get this:

S –> V = active (the subject does the verb)
V –> S = passive (the verb is done to the subject)

Grammatically, the active voice looks like this:

Subject – Verb – Object (i.e., Who did what to whom?).

On the other hand, the passive voice uses the object as the grammatical subject of the verb, resulting in

Subject/Object – Verb (i.e., To whom was it done?).

By using the object as the grammatical subject, a passive voice sentence makes the information convoluted and complex, and the reader will be less likely to respond to it. Additionally, the meaningful subject (i.e., who or what does the main action) will never be the grammatical subject in the passive voice. 

Main action: The main action described by the sentence, what the sentence is about.
Meaningful subject: The person or thing doing the main action.
Grammatical subject: The word in the subject position in the sentence.

In nearly every sentence, the active voice results in more direct writing. However, the passive voice has a purpose, too. Next, we’ll look at the reasons for each voice.

Reasons for active voice

The main reason for using the active voice is that it directly answers the readers’ question: Who did what to whom? It provides that information and in that order. As a result, the reader can more easily understand and remember the idea you wish to communicate.

Other reasons include the following:

  1. Sentences in the active voice are more engaging. Something is performing an action.
  2. The active voice is more likely to use the meaningful subject as the grammatical subject and the meaningful action as the main verb.
  3. Active voice sentences are generally more concise.
  4. The active voice emphasizes active verbs.

In brief, active voice follows the principles of direct writing.

Reasons for passive voice

The passive voice may be appropriate for two reasons: (1) to de-emphasize the person or thing doing the action, and (2) to shorten the grammatical subject.

The main reason for using the passive voice is to hide or de-emphasize the meaningful subject, the person or thing that did the meaningful action. Instead, the passive voice emphasizes the person or thing on which the action was performed, as seen in D.2a and D.2b.

Example D.2a, passive, emphasizes the material: “The material was first developed in the laboratory by researchers from Oslo.”
Example D.2.b, active, emphasizes the researchers: “Researchers from Oslo first developed the material in a laboratory.”

In both D.2a and D.2b, the meaningful action is developed, making researchers the meaningful subject. Whereas the active voice sentence in D.2a uses the meaningful subject as the grammatical subject, the passive voice sentence in D.2b does not. If the writer wishes to focus on the material, and if the researchers are not important (or not at this point in the document), the writer might prefer the passive voice.

Scientific writing, regardless of the field, does not require the passive voice. This also applies to dissertation writing. The active voice is perfectly appropriate for describing the research methodology. The purpose of the research methodology is to describe what the researchers did to collect and analyze the data. Thus, the researchers are correct to use the active voice when describing their actions. Instead of writing

“The data were collected from six species of house sparrows,”

The researcher can write

“We collected data from six species of house sparrows.”

In many cases, the writer can revise the sentence to use the active voice without mentioning the researchers, as seen here:

“Six species of house sparrows provided the initial data for analysis.”

The second reason for using the passive voice is to simplify and shorten the subject of the sentence so that the main verb is closer to the beginning of the sentence and easier to find.

Example D.3a, active voice sentence: “The decision whether to solicit for and hire a new personnel manager or to outsource those functions to an external agency consumed valuable work time.” (subject: 21 words)
Example D.3b, passive voice sentence: “Valuable work time was consumed by the decision whether to solicit for and hire a new personnel manager or to outsource those functions to an external agency.” (subject: 3 words)

Example D.3a uses the meaningful subject (The decision whether to . . .) as the grammatical subject. It focuses the readers’ attention on the main idea of the sentence. For these reasons, Example D.3a is more direct than Example D.3b. However, the subject contains 21 words, greatly delaying the reader from reaching the main verb. On the other hand, Example D.3b uses the object (Valuable work time) as the grammatical subject, forcing the meaningful subject to the end of the sentence. However, the grammatical subject contains only 3 words, so the reader can reach the main verb more quickly.

In cases similar to Examples D.3a, the writer may choose to use the passive voice to reduce the length of the grammatical subject.

In a limited number of cases, the passive voice is useful, but examine every passive voice sentence carefully to make sure it is the better choice. Other than in these two cases, the active voice will produce better writing. When we editing clients’ documents at Precise Edit, we rarely need to use the passive voice.

(Adapted from the forthcoming Bowman’s Concise Guide to Technical Writing, available mid-February 2012 at http://HostileEditing.com.)

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3 Strategies for Writing about Complex Subjects

The basic principle for writing about complex subjects is to do the work necessary so that the reader can understand you easily. Of course, your first task is to make sure you understand your own ideas. As Einstein said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” With this in mind, here are three strategies to help you write clearly about complex ideas, each taken from 300 Days of Better Writing by David Bowman. 

Day 33: Use the simplest correct words.

Using big words makes you seem smart. They make your reader think, “Wow, this writer really knows a lot!” Right? Probably not.

Using words that are outside of your readers’ common vocabulary may have three effects, all negative. First, they reduce the readers understanding of what you are trying to communicate. Second, they distract the reader from what you are trying to communicate and force the reader to concentrate on word meaning. Third, they can give the impression that you are trying to impress the reader, which will make you seem pretentious. If your goals are communicating clearly and improving your credibility, use the simplest correct words.

One note about the “correct” word: While you are choosing simple words that mean what you want to say, you also need to consider how readers will respond to them. As such, you need to think about the tone you wish to create. Continue reading

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