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A Word, Please: ‘Make it about the reader’ and other writing tips from an editor

A commercial jet leaves John Wayne International Airport and flies over the Upper Newport Bay.
A commercial jet leaves John Wayne International Airport and flies over the Upper Newport Bay. A sentence like “The idea of hopping on a plane or in your car and traveling like you’re accustomed to won’t be possible” cries out to be rewritten, writes grammar columnist June Casagrande.
(Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

As spell-checkers and grammar-checkers get better, I sometimes wonder how long people like me will get paid to check writers’ spelling and grammar.

Then I remember: There’s a lot more to bad writing than missed commas and subject-verb agreement errors. In fact, most of the problems I fix in my editing work have nothing to do with grammar, spelling or punctuation. Instead, a huge number of the mistakes writers make involve things like logic, clarity and remembering the reader.

Here are some real notes I’ve given to writers in recent years, along with some disguised excerpts from the articles they wrote. Hopefully, these comments can give anyone a little added insight into their own writing.

“Avoid sentences with an empty main clause.” This note was inspired by a writer who penned a sentence like “The Acme Hotel is a nice hotel.” Strip that sentence down to its bare bones and you have “the hotel is a hotel.” Duh. Often, the solution for a sentence like this is to change the grammar so the structure isn’t “The noun is a noun.” In this case, the obvious alternative is “The noun is adjective.” In some sentences, this works great. Like “The hotel is a luxurious hotel” can be simplified to “The hotel is luxurious.” But that works only because “luxurious” has substance. “Nice” does not. So rather than changing this to “The Acme Hotel is nice,” the writer needed to find something substantive to say, like “The Acme Hotel offers spacious rooms with luxury linens and widescreen TVs.”

“Translate business-speak into terms meaningful to the reader.” If you’re writing for an airline industry trade magazine, it may be fine to say, “ABC Airlines’ SkySuite product is generally regarded as one of the best first-class products.” But if your reader is a traveler wondering whether to splurge on a first-class seat, this won’t fly. Travelers don’t think of their onboard experience as a “product,” and they may not get too excited about how it’s “generally regarded.” The fix here: Make it about the reader and give hard facts so they can decide for themselves how great it is. “When you fly ABC Airlines first class, you’ll enjoy a fully enclosed private bedroom suite, signature caviar service and meals prepared by a Michelin-starred chef.”

Here are some popular myths that can be cleared up with a better understanding of word categories.

“Watch wordiness.” Some writers take wordiness to extremes, like the person who penned this sentence: “You’re going to need to be in the know to get the most out of the program.” The whole purpose of the article was to get readers “in the know” about the program. A total waste of words. I chopped the whole sentence. Another alternative would have been to start a new sentence with “To get the most out of the program …” followed by a tip.

“‘Half off admission’ is meaningless when you don’t say what admission normally costs.” This one’s self-explanatory. A writer mentioned in an article that on certain days of the week, festival admission was half-price. But he never said what the full price was.

“Pay closer attention to substance/meaning of your words.” Sometimes our words don’t say what we think they say, as shown in this real sentence from an article I edited: “Here are a few reasons that this card offers that could provide to make it worth getting.” What? Some of these words look like they were included erroneously: “that could provide to.” But take those out and you still have a bad sentence: “Here are a few reasons this credit card offers that could make it worth getting.” The biggest problem is “this credit card offers,” which adds nothing but flab. A big overhaul was the cure: “Here are a few reasons this credit card may be worth getting.”

“Make sure your subject makes sense with your predicate.” This note was inspired by the following sentence: “The idea of hopping on a plane or in your car and traveling like you’re accustomed to won’t be possible.” Au contraire. Even at the height of the pandemic, the idea was always possible. The fix here: ditch the idea as a subject and trim the rest. “Hopping on a plane or into your car and traveling like you used to isn’t possible.”

June Casagrande is the author of “The Joy of Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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