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Be Your Own Editor – and watch out for speed bumps!

Posted in: Writing, Publishing and Presenting

There’s no author who can’t benefit from an editor, or two, or ten.  But first, an author needs to do everything they can to make the manuscript as good as they possibly can.  You want your editor(s) to concentrate on what you’ve written, without the distraction of stupid stuff that you were just too lazy to fix.  If your writing makes the editor think that you don’t even care, they’re not going to care either.  And that’s bad.

So how do you, as a scientist and not an author, become your own editor?

Be direct.  Say what you mean.  Say exactly what you mean.  Say it as clearly, as briefly and as directly as you can.  Short, simple sentences are okay.  In fact, they’re good.  Every word should be necessary and every word should be the correct word.

It’s Only Logical.  Remember Mr. Spock.  He uses English with the precision of a scientific instrument and it’s not even his first language.  Since the purpose of any language is to communicate, his precision is logical.

Nathaniel Hawthorne never did any scientific writing that I know about, but he did write this: “Easy reading is damn hard writing.” Yeah.

“If the organism demonstrates to be a staph on the gram stain, one may consider drilling the femoral neck for prophylactic decompression as this may be secondary to a metaphyseal osteomyelitis.”

Not easy to read, is it?  And that was published.  Try reading it aloud.  Can you say it three times fast on a treadmill?  No, I didn’t think so.

More importantly, what does it mean?  Well, you have to stop and think about it, don’t you?  Break it up into phrases.  Shift some things around in your mind.  Presumably your mind will reach a conclusion similar to:

“If the gram stain shows staphylococci, consider drilling the femoral neck to drain the metaphyseal abscess.”

It’s just a simple, useful if…then statement.  If you see this, then you do that.  There’s no reason to make a reader work so hard to figure that out.

Wasted Words.  Here are some words and phrases you can just plain delete: actual, actually, exceptionally, in a very real sense, interestingly, it can be seen that, it is of interest to note that, moreover, needless to say, quite, rather, really, the point here is that, truly, very.

Feel free to add your own words and phrases to these lists.

If you delete those wasted words, editors will thank you.  Instead of being distracted by such silliness, they can concentrate on improving what matters about your paper.

You’ve just increased your chances of publication.

Two Minds Are Better Than One.  Grab a colleague or do this by yourself.  Look at each sentence you’ve written and explain what it means.  By speaking, using your mouth and words and breathing and such.

If you explain a written sentence by speaking, you’ll automatically simplify it.  Just reading it aloud makes this happen, because it “sounds better” when it’s simpler.  If you’re doing it alone and are afraid of looking like a weirdo, speak into a cell phone and nobody will notice.  But it’s better with a colleague because he or she can ask you questions.

Your article will become steadily shorter and clearer as you cross out unnecessary words and replace complicated words and structures with simple ones.  For instance, teach your word processor how to replace “utilize” with “use.”  Every time.

Articles that have had this time-consuming treatment, especially more than once, are much easier to read, understand, edit, and publish.  You aren’t changing your meaning.  You’re just making it easier for your reader to grasp that meaning.

All articles, even published ones, can be improved this way.  Not only articles but many expensive medical books are much too long and even painful to read because they get no such treatment from their authors, editors, or publishers.

Details, Details

George Orwell noted that good writing is like a window pane.  Here’s an author who needs a big ole shot of Windex:

“It has been suggested that the utilization of surgical intervention be deferred until attenuation of the infectious symptomatology.”


It has been suggested that…? I call those “weasel words.”  Delete them.  Always.

“LaRocca recommends that surgery be delayed if the patient has an infection.”

That’s better. Or:

“Surgery should be delayed if the patient has an infection.”

Simple.  Clear.  Direct.  No weasels.

Speed Bumps

I refer to long-winded passive-voice writing that leaves readers wondering What does that mean? as speed bumps.  You’re cruising along at a nice steady pace, reading something, and BAM you’ve got to stop or slow down.  Double back.  Sort out the meaning that the author hid because of laziness, incompetence, or unclear thinking.

In writing, speed bumps are bad.  Will the reader start reading again, or put down your article and go do something else?

Does this author even care?  Are they even trying? Make an Acquisitions Editor wonder that enough times and you won’t have a reader, because you won’t get published at all.

Easy reading is hard to write, but lazy writing is hard to read.  Do the work.  Your reader will thank you.


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