The art of tidying your copy

Updated: Aug 18, 2019, 08:23 IST | Nasrin Modak Siddiqi

Copy Chief of Penguin Random House, Benjamin Dreyer's book on writing clearly is taking the publishing world by storm. Here's why

The art of tidying your copy
Illustration/Uday Mohite

Why can't I start a sentence with 'and'?" I had asked my English professor in college. "Because it's the rule," she'd said astutely. "But, we do it all the time in spoken English," I argued. "If it were written English, you are wrong again, Miss. You don't start a sentence with a 'but' either," she said, adjusting her spectacles on her head.

I have broken that rule over a hundred times in my writing career. Because sometimes, there's no better way to break a sentence than start with an 'and'. Now, I am glad it's been acknowledged in Dreyer's English: How to Write Clearly and Stylishly by Benjamin Dreyer (Random House), a buoyant set of rules for good writing by a man who has been mending authors' words his entire life.

The art of tidying your copy

In the introduction, Dreyer says he would reveal "fancy little tricks" he has "come across or devised to make even skilled writing better". And, he has done so with utmost sincerity and a good dose of humour. In the first chapter, he starts with challenging the reader to stop using words such as 'very', 'really', 'quite', 'in fact' and 'actually' for a week. This, he says, would make you 'a considerably better writer than you were at the beginning'. And then, we couldn't agree more when he calls 'literally', "the intensifier from hell" or that "only godless savages, do not use the Oxford or serial comma". Further on, he shells out general advice on grammar: what to do with numbers, foreign phrases, the names of celebrities and commonly confused words.

Copy editors the world over rarely get enough credit for all they do. Their job is more than just putting commas and adding periods. They must fact-check, redeem poor writing and make good writing better. We asked copy editors what gets their goat and here's what they had to share.

Ananya Saha

"Poor grammar interrupts the flow of the story. Use of repetitive words, incorrect punctuation and overuse of articles and commas. Other than that, long sentences are a big no. Keep them short and simple. Break your sentences in two to three parts, and delete the unnecessary sentence/s: it will make your story tighter."
Ananya Saha, commissioning editor – digital, Juggernaut Books

Siddhesh Inamdar

A long list of errors
"Inconsistency in the spellings of names of people and places, tenses, not knowing how to use parenthetical commas, repeating the same word in subsequent sentences, lack of fact-checking rigour, writing long sentences with difficult words, jumping from one thought to another and the general lack of attention to detail that some authors betray."
Siddhesh Inamdar, senior commissioning editor, HarperCollins India

Megha Moorthy

Clear your thoughts
"We find typos absurdly hilarious and are strangely turned on by lucid writing. When looking at a copy, I don't expect it to be grammatically sound or have the perfect structure. If people could do that, we wouldn't have jobs. However, what I do expect is clarity of thought. It needs to communicate clearly what the reporter/writer wants to say without contradictions and confusion. A copy editor can and should be able to handle the rest."
Megha Moorthy, editor-in-chief, RoundGlass Sustain and newspaper editor for over 15 years

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