Copyediting Tips

By Kelly Norris

Being your own editor is tricky business, because as writers we tend to mentally fill in what we know is supposed to be there, and it’s therefore easy to overlook a missing word, letter, apostrophe, et cetera. Editing someone else’s work can also be a thorny proposition, because an editor must know what “mistakes” are genuine and which fall under the umbrella of creative license. It is usually easier to edit simple copy, such as Web content, brochure text and manuals than to edit fiction, because such pieces are typically less artistic and more traditionally structured. But even Web copywriting composed to deliver a message may pose a quandary for the copyeditor. Take, for example, this sentence:

Everyone must rely on their own instincts.

This sentence is grammatically incorrect because its subject, everyone, represents a non-specific individual, while their suggests two or more people. English has as one of its flaws an absence of a gender-neutral pronoun, and it forces writers wishing to adhere to proper form to rely on the cumbersome his or her when composing a sentence like the above example. The correct version is:

Everyone must rely on his or her own instincts.

Common use has made replacing his or her with their acceptable in casual situations, such as friendly conversation and informal writing, but it’s important to know when the substitution is not appropriate.

If you’re writing or editing professional text, it’s particularly important to have a solid grasp of grammar, punctuation and sentence structure. Certainly many readers will overlook common mistakes, but those with the knowledge to spot your errors will pass over you as a copywriter or copyeditor in favor of someone less inclined to be sloppy.

Let’s look at some typical mistakes and see how readily you identify them. Each of the following sentences has a least one flaw.

  • I would have preferred him not driving to his parents house after dark.
  • If my uncle would have went to college, he could’ve gotten a better job.
  • Bill was supposed to visit Tina and I only for the weekend, but ended up staying all week.
  • Lois should’ve returned the vase to it’s place on the mantle.
  • If you’re not feeling well, perhaps you should lay down.
  • If he’d studied harder, he certainly would have made less mistakes.
  • It’s so difficult that only one in ten students ever graduate Mr. Johnson’s class.

How many errors were you able to spot? To find out, let’s look at how these sentences should have appeared:

  • In the first example, two possessives were missed and appear in italics in this corrected version:
    I would have preferred his not driving to his parents’ house after dark.
  • Many people confuse went and gone.
    If my uncle would have gone to college, he could’ve gotten a better job.
  • Another common mistake is confusing the proper use of I and me. This sentence also had a modifier placed ahead of where it should be.
    Bill was supposed to visit Tina and me for only the weekend, but ended up staying all week.
  • Just to make things truly confusing, the possessive form of the word its has no apostrophe. The apostrophe is reserved for the contraction of it is.
    Lois should’ve returned the vase to its place on the mantle.
  • Remember, chickens lay eggs; people lie down.
    If you’re not feeling well, perhaps you should lie down.
  • The word less refers to a quantifiable but uncountable amount of something, such as less sugar or less vulnerable. When something can be measured by numbers, the word fewer is appropriate.
    If he’d studied harder, he certainly would have made fewer mistakes.
  • The verb graduate in the original sentence is wrong because its subject, only one, is singular, not the plural students.
    It’s so difficult that only one in ten students ever graduates Mr. Johnson’s class.

Comments are closed