Category Archives: Editorial Excellence

How to attract new clients by diversifying your editorial skills

Can you get more business by extending your offer beyond core proofreading and editing skills? Margaret Hunter knows this works, and she suggests ways to develop your own diversification plan.

Here’s what I’ll be looking at in this article:

  • Why some clients like working with multi-taskers
  • What sorts of skills and knowhow add value for clients
  • Working out what you can add to your business offer
  • How to use this to diversify your client base and grow your business

Why some clients like working with multi-taskers

They don’t want to be involved in the minutiae

I have two main types of clients who value that I can do more than ‘just’ edit for them: businesses/organisations and independent author-publishers. They don’t know all the ins and outs of the traditional publishing workflow – and they don’t particularly want to (or have the time to) manage different people doing the different tasks required. They want someone to trust that they can hand over their raw text to who will do what it takes to make it publishable.

It’s efficient and cost-effective

We’ve come a long way from the inefficiencies of paper-based editing, and content collaboration tools are evolving all the time. Why pay a graphic designer to rekey the amendments that the client has already paid a proofreader to mark up on a PDF if the proofreader could make the changes direct in the first place? If draft text doesn’t fit the page layout, the copyeditor is usually the best person to suggest a solution, so why not save time and money by giving an editor with the right skills access to the design file, rather than toing and froing with the designer?

But don’t take my word for it

Here’s what one of my clients says about why using a professional with multiple skills is an attractive offering for her.

Working with editors who are able to put documents into InDesign layouts as well as editing the content makes my life so much easier. Knowing that I can hand over this additional element means that one person can support a project from end to end. Familiarity with the copy means that editors can make informed decisions about layouts or provide advice working within branded InDesign templates to make sure that formatting and content work together.

Skills and knowhow that add value for clients

Clearly, what you can offer in the value-added line depends on both you and your client. You have to actually have the additional skills or knowhow and your client has to want them. That may mean doing some research on what your target clients publish and how they go about it. You could of course start by asking your existing clients whether there is anything else you could do for them to make the process more efficient.

Many businesses in particular already have streamlined content publishing processes that work for them, and asking your client to explain how they work may reveal somewhere else that you can get involved. On the other hand, some clients may be stuck using a process that would benefit from some fresh thinking or a different approach, so why not suggest one?

We editorial types know that publishing a text is not a simple, straight line from author to output, but a web of many ultimately ‘invisible’ tasks. If you can offer a number of those tasks, that makes you a better prospect for clients who are looking for the least complicated way to outsource their project.

What can you add to your business offer?

For me, my main value-added offerings are my skills in and knowledge of design, layout and formatting. I have secured some regular clients because they were specifically looking for experienced copyeditors who also knew their way around InDesign and could therefore be trusted to work directly in the layout files. In some cases they have already used another professional to set up their templates, leaving me free to ensure an efficient process by editing in Word then doing the final layout in the client’s template.

I also work with authors who are publishing independently. Typically this might be someone writing content to promote their business. They know their topic, but they may not have much idea of how to write about it or how to get it published well. Here again what’s attractive is that I can offer them more than one part of the process. I’ll edit the words, but I’ll also steer them through other aspects of the publishing process so they end up with the files they need to publish a professional book or document and an understanding of the ancillary tasks they need to do or manage. Possibly the most valuable thing I offer these clients is peace of mind that they’ll not be embarrassed by doing things in an unprofessional way.

I’ve developed my skills (and confidence) over the years so that I understand when to offer more than strict editing of what a client has written or to suggest something different from what they’ve asked for. That might be rewriting the bare bones of a text into a better voice for the intended readers, or suggesting a layout that breaks the information down into user-friendly chunks.

When you’re not familiar with the publishing process, you’re unsure of who does what, you don’t know where to look for help and you’re not entirely sure what your text needs anyway, having someone make sensible suggestions for the specifics of your project is immensely valuable.

What, then, could you offer? Perhaps you have experience of getting permissions for quoted works, or you’re skilled at writing marketing copy, or you were a graphic designer so can supply quality images. Or maybe you know a great book cover designer, ebook formatter or copyright lawyer and you could team up to offer a package service. Think sideways.

Diversify your client base, diversify your skills

To help you identify the added-value services you can offer, first have a think about your client base (or aspirations). It seems from what I read regularly on the CIEP forums that many people entering our profession (and some who have been around for a long time) are thinking too small. They associate editing and proofreading with publishers, with books.

If you shift your mindset and start from the base that anyone who writes words for public or organisational consumption (in any format) might need editorial support, the potential client world is your oyster. Of course, as with any oyster, you may have to work hard to find your pearl.

Once you start thinking outside the box about who your clients might be, then you are free to explore what they actually need and what bits of that you can do for them.

But start on solid ground

Before you get too far into diversification, check that your starting point is a solid one. If you’re offering any sort of editorial services professionally, make sure you’ve got a good grounding in the core skills of copyediting and/or proofreading, and have a plan in place to keep your skills up to date through regular continuing professional development (CPD). It’s not enough to have an interest in words and language, a degree in English Literature or be the go-to person in your office for spotting typos.

Think like an electrician or an accountant, or anyone else preparing to offer a trade service, and get the right training to justify taking people’s money and assure them you’re providing a professional service. That’s probably not going to be from a quick one-off course that offers you an easy route to a ‘qualification’ (who’s judging?) with the promise of earning loads of money working from home. It takes grind and reliable study material.

Even if you think you’ll never work with clients in the traditional publishing industry (I’m talking mainly books here), it will still serve you well to learn the basics of long-honed publishing practice and the art of editing from a solid course.

But if you’ve not completed your core skills training yet, you don’t have to wait until you’re finished to start thinking about how you can supplement your core skills and add value to the services you offer.

So, what’s your added value?

It’s over to you now to start thinking (and planning and learning). As with all good marketing approaches, start with your clients, not you. What tasks do they need done? Can you do them, or learn to?

If you’re stuck for ideas, why not take a look at the CIEP’s Curriculum for Professional Development? There are enough areas for CPD there to last an editorial lifetime. Perhaps one of those could turn out to be that special thing that makes you the go-to editorial professional for the added value you bring to a project.

About Margaret Hunter

Margaret Hunter has been diversifying her editorial services business since 2003 and trades as Daisy Editorial. She is an Advanced Professional Member of the CIEP and at the time of writing is the CIEP’s information director.

 

 

About the CIEP

The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) is a non-profit body promoting excellence in English language editing. We set and demonstrate editorial standards, and we are a community, training hub and support network for editorial professionals – the people who work to make text accurate, clear and fit for purpose.

Find out more about:

 

Photo credits: colourful flowers by Henry Lorenzatto; lightbulb by Riccardo Annandale,
both on Unsplash.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

How can an editor help with brand voice?

Editors do more than put your style guidelines into action. Louise Marsters explains how they can make your words sing to the tune of your voice guidelines too – and keep you on brand.

Your visual identity is all sorted: logo, colour palette, typeface, primary and secondary imagery. Hey, you look good! But how do you sound?

Let’s look at:

  • why words are part of your brand too
  • how tone of voice conveys your personality
  • why everyone writing for your brand needs one voice
  • the voice tools already in your style guide.

Words are part of your brand too

When we talk about brand, we often mean visual identity.

We approve brand colours, agonise over typefaces, workshop logos, define imagery style and visualise data. We document this ‘look and feel’ in a set of brand guidelines, and deploy it consistently across our advertising and reports, stationery and website.

But the impression we make goes beyond these tangible elements. How do we speak and connect with our audiences? What sort of language and words do we use?

Written style – call it ‘verbal identity’ or brand voice – describes a brand’s ‘personality’. That personality is always the same, so can be just as distinctive as visual style.

Are you a fruit smoothie brand with a personality that is informal, witty and subversive? Are you an industry body that is authoritative, forward-thinking and inclusive?

Successful brands stand out when they look and feel consistent across each piece of content they create. And brands that sound consistent gain credibility and readers’ confidence.

Enter the editor, to keep sound and brand aligned.

Tone of voice conveys your personality

If brand voice is our personality, tone of voice is how we express it.

It’s not so much what we say, but how we say it. The words we choose will influence how our content is received – and whether it’s trusted.

Do we talk in terms of ‘exploration and production assets’ (standard industry vocabulary, but detached and corporate) or ‘oilfields and oil wells’ (straightforward, real)? Is our brand about ‘strategic planning and development’ or ‘building homes for the next generation’?

Both tones can exist, depending on the context.

A corporate law firm’s brand voice or personality might be expert, commercial and professional. It might adopt a straightforward, useful and concise tone of voice (cool) for its client updates, but an accessible, responsive and committed tone (warm) for its pro bono reporting.

Its personality is the same, no matter the audience, channel or purpose of the content.

For an editor working on the firm’s communications, personality and tone are the prescription lenses for their editorial goggles.

Through these lenses, an editor can flag where the writing feels too legalistic for the client ­– often a non-lawyer – to understand, or too verbose to publish on the firm’s website, or too aloof to attract a solicitor to apply for a secondment.

They also allow an editor to leave well alone when the words are working.

When tone of voice is right, content becomes relevant and meaningful, which means it will influence and persuade; wrong, and people will switch off.

Everyone writing for your brand needs one voice

How we put together the words we choose also matters.

Tone of voice guidelines can establish the type of language, words, expressions and phrases that will reinforce the brand, even the length and complexity of sentences and their rhythm.

But everyone writes differently. Multiple people writing for a singular brand bring multiple voices.

Annual reports are one of the most challenging multi-author publications to align. Written by dozens of contributors – marketing teams, accountants, lawyers, managers, engineers, executives or, worse, committees – the report must tell one coherent, coordinated story for the past year. With one voice.

Writing isn’t necessarily the day job for these contributors. And no tome encouraging writers away from cliché, passive construction, nominalisation and jargon, and towards inclusive language, active construction, clarity and plain English will keep that voice on track.

The skill of an editor is to shape their combined words to flow as one voice, call out the legalese and ‘corporatese’, and align their tone and rhythm.

The editor is the valued gatekeeper of this quality-control process – a process that can help preserve the integrity of the brand and, quite possibly, the sanity of the reader.

The voice tools already in your style guide

A style guide is the business end of that process, giving writers and editors the detail of how to present the brand voice.

Peppered throughout are clues to a brand’s personality and tone of voice – tools, or rules, that editors put into action every day, as part of their mission to weed out the errors and infelicities, and variances in punctuation, spelling and terminology, that so frustrate readers.

Because where correct grammar is non-negotiable, (consistent) style is – and here are some examples.

  • Do we use contractions (it’ll) or not (it will)?
  • Do we use first (we) or third (the company) person?
  • Do we prefer one variant spelling (while) over another (whilst)?
  • Do we choose stately (utilise) or conversational (use) words?
  • Do we capitalise ‘important’ words (the Members of the Executive Leadership Team) or keep it real (the leaders of our business)?
  • Do we use full points for titles and initials (Mr. J. R. Hartley) or not (JR Hartley)?
  • Do we use long (the 31st of March) dates or short (31 March)?

These simple choices can be the difference between a brand feeling formal and traditional or informal and modern, instructional or inviting a conversation. They help us present a unified brand – with a unified voice.

Make the most of an editor – and stay on brand

Now we know that an editor is more than a brilliant speller, here’s how to make the most of their skills and stay on brand.

An editor can:

  • keep the language and words you use aligned with the brand voice you choose
  • flag when tone of voice is off-brand – and sit on their hands when it’s spot on
  • shape multiple voices writing for a singular brand into one consistent brand voice
  • implement the detailed style choices that help a brand sound unified.

Have more sound ideas to add? Voice your thoughts in the comments.

More on how editors can help with business content

Six ways an editor can improve your business content by Mary McCauley

The CIEP guide, Your house style, outlines the value of a house style and reveals how to go about constructing such guidance if one doesn’t already exist.

About Louise Marsters

Louise Marsters edits communications and business content for corporate clients. Working in-house in corporate and financial communications taught Louise to shift her brand from ‘perfectionist’ to ‘pragmatic perfectionist’. Her colleagues even developed a strapline: Has it been Louise-d? Louise is a Professional Member of the Chartered Institute for Editing and Proofreading, and a member of the plain language organisation Clarity.

 

About the CIEP

The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) is a non-profit body promoting excellence in English language editing. We set and demonstrate editorial standards, and we are a community, training hub and support network for editorial professionals – the people who work to make text accurate, clear and fit for purpose.

Find out more about:

 

Photo credits: branded tins by Waldemar Brandt; microphone by Jason Rosewell; brand identity by Patrik Michalicka, all on Unsplash.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

I want to self-publish my business book. Why should I use an editor?

Should you use an editor before self-publishing your business book? Helen Jones explains how an editor can help get your book in better shape before you publish.

Here are the things an editor will look at:

  • Spelling, grammar and other details
  • Who is your reader?
  • Getting the facts right
  • Taking an overview
  • Keeping it simple
  • The self-publishing process

Spelling, grammar and other details

Writers often tell me, ‘I’ve run it through spellchecker.’ Spellcheckers in computer programmes such as Word have their place, especially if spelling is not your strong point, but they won’t pick up everything. Mine was blissfully ignorant, for instance, of the errors shown in the three cartoons below!

An editor will pick up on embarrassing typos like these, as well as words that are commonly used in the wrong context, eg alternate/alternative, complement/compliment and continual/continuous.

As well as checking the spelling, editors will look at:

  • Grammar – this covers everything from the tenses of verbs to deciding if a noun is singular or plural.
  • Sentence construction – for instance, changing passive sentences to active ones, reordering confusing sentences or cutting down long ones.
  • Punctuation – common errors include using a comma rather than a semicolon to join two clauses and putting apostrophes in the wrong place.
  • Consistency – in-house editors adopt the publisher’s house style but there’s no reason why your editor can’t create one for your book. House style covers things like variant spellings, eg learnt or learned, and whether to use text or figures for numbers. These are subtle differences but, when applied overall, they will make your book look more professional.

Who is your reader?

Sending your manuscript to friends or relatives is a good place to start, because you get a feel for people’s reactions to your book. However, because they know you, they are likely to be very flattering rather than look at it objectively.

An editor, on the other hand will:

  • Ask: Who is going to read this? Is the language level right for this readership? For instance, Ten Easy Steps to Growing your Business would be different in style from Advanced Business Strategies.
  • Check for unnecessary or confusing jargon and that the author has explained any technical terms.
  • Make suggestions on how to improve it.

Getting the facts right

No matter how many times you’ve read through your manuscript, there will always be things you miss.

An editor will act as a fresh pair of eyes and will check for the following:

  • Inconsistencies in information – for example do charts, graphs and diagrams tally up with what it says in the text?
  • Incorrect facts and figures or ambiguous statements.
  • Whether references are in a logical order (usually alphabetical).
  • Has the writer got permission, where necessary, to quote from other sources? Ideally, this needs to happen at an early stage, otherwise their book may be delayed.

Taking an overview

New writers can sometimes get so involved in the detail they forget to consider their book as a whole. As we’ve already pointed out, editors will check the detail. But they will also take an overview and consider the following:

  • Are the chapters in a logical order?
  • Does the book have a clear beginning, middle and end?
  • Is there a central theme that runs throughout the book and, if not, would it be strengthened by having one?
  • Is there anything missing that needs adding?
  • Is there anything that is irrelevant that needs taking out?

Keeping it simple

We can all wax lyrical when we get enthusiastic about our subject. And let’s face it, we want the reader to catch your enthusiasm! However, repetition, going off at a tangent, and long words and sentences can be off-putting.

Many CIEP members are experts in plain English, which essentially helps your reader to understand and apply what they have read. The International Plain Language Federation describes it like this:

A communication is in plain language if its wording, structure and design are so clear that the intended audience can easily find what they need, understand what they find, and use that information.

For more on plain English, go to iplfederation.org/plain-language.

The self-publishing process

Self-publishing can be a bit daunting for the novice. But getting some handy tips from someone who understands the process will go a long way towards making things easier for you.

An editor who has worked with self-published authors can help you answer the following questions:

  • Should I have printed copies or an ebook, or both?
  • Should my ebook be reflowable or fixed layout?
  • What’s the difference between publishing with Amazon KPD or another
    self-publishing provider?
  • Should I use a typesetter or will the Word file I’ve created be adequate?
  • Where can I get an ISBN and barcode?
  • What should I include in my prelim pages?

Wrapping up: How an editor can contribute to your book

An editor will:

  • Take an overview as well as checking the details.
  • Help you with checking the facts and ensure the language style is right for the audience.
  • Offer advice on the self-publishing process.

Overall, an editor can add that professional touch that will increase the chances of your book being a success.

So, what are you waiting for? To find a suitable editor for your business book,
go to ciep.uk/directory.

About Helen Jones

Helen Jones started her career in publishing setting ads for a crane magazine. Among other things, she now proofreads bids for lift contractors. She hopes this means she’s gone up in the world. Highlights of her career include interviewing Quentin Blake, writing children’s picture books and helping self-published authors get their books in print.

 

About the CIEP

The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) is a non-profit body promoting excellence in English language editing. We set and demonstrate editorial standards, and we are a community, training hub and support network for editorial professionals – the people who work to make text accurate, clear and fit for purpose.

Find out more about:

 

Cartoons copyright ©Helen Jones

Photo credit: open book by Austin Distel on Unsplash

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

The perfect partnership: the value of editing to an author

Working with an editor can be unlike any previous working relationship for a writer. In this article, Anna Cale explains how she has benefited from having her writing edited for magazines and a book.

As a freelance arts and culture writer, I think I am generally pretty good with words. But I also have to be professional. I always hit my word count, I submit my work to the agreed deadline and, importantly, I am open to feedback. Most of the time, anyway.

I am often too close to my work. I need someone else’s eye for detail, for spotting whether I have gone off track a little. I need a good editor. This is not something that comes easily, but I have always tried to remain open-minded and not too defensive. However, in my experience of writing articles, and then recently my first book, the role of an editor in the process has differed significantly.

Knowing your audience

When writing short-form articles for magazines, my interaction with an editor is quite limited. I pitch an idea in an email to the person who has the power (and budget) to commission. This is usually a hook that sums up the idea, with a short paragraph providing a little bit more detail of how the article would explore the idea. If the editor says yes, then we talk terms. Once the agreed article is written, it is sent to the editor for review, and you work together to form the final piece for publication.

You need to know the publication well before pitching an idea, identifying their style and what they usually commission, to have a chance of having your article idea accepted. It is a fast-paced and competitive environment, and there is some advantage to doing your research. This also really helps when it comes to the editing process, and hopefully shortens it considerably.

Sometimes you build a good working relationship with a particular commissioning editor, and that helps to make the process easier. You can start to second-guess what they want. But turnaround can often be quick, even for monthly magazines, and you don’t actually have much opportunity to build a connection. Both sides want the process to be as quick as possible.

Becoming a book author

When it came to writing my first book, however, the entire editing process was significantly different. My copyeditor was assigned to me by the publishers once I had submitted my final manuscript. I suspect this varies as each publishing company will work differently, but in my case that meant I had no interaction with an editor until that final stage, over a year after signing my contract to write 70,000 words.

I had done my research before putting together my original proposal for the publisher. Not just on the subject matter, but on the style of book the publishers usually release. I knew I would have to tailor my style a little to their audience, without compromising my own identity as a writer.

I was always going to be very protective of my book. It had been my baby for a long time. Friends had looked at drafts at various points, and my poor husband had read the entire thing twice. There was frustration along the way, as I realised just how much I use certain phrases (I’m looking at you, ‘of course’) or made the decision to alter sections significantly. I knew it was in a decent state at the point of submission, but I still didn’t feel prepared for editing and what that would entail. It was a complete mystery to me.

I was therefore rather apprehensive about the work involved in the editing process, but my editor guided me through it. Receiving a warm and friendly introductory email from her really helped, as she told me what the next steps would be. It felt like a fog had finally lifted. She was in control of the coordination of the various iterations of editing the manuscript, and I had confidence in her approach from the start. For me, as a debut writer, this feeling of trust was invaluable.

Working together

My experience of the editing process was a positive one. It felt like a constructive working relationship built on respect, with a balance of acceptance and compromise to reach a shared goal. We both had the same thing in mind – for me to produce the best book I possibly could.

It was about respecting each other’s knowledge. I was the subject matter expert on the topic, but my editor was the expert on how to present that idea for publication. Any spelling, punctuation, formatting or grammar changes she made were a given for me. I knew my editor would be bang on with that stuff, and I accepted those changes largely unchallenged. Anything more substantial was raised with questions or suggestions. I didn’t always accept those ideas, but did explore them within the context they were given to me.

It was a long process. We navigated the journey from rather long Word document to typeset PDF, with considered discussions over how best to present the appendices, the bibliography and filmography. The index was a pain, and I realised along the way that my grasp of the alphabet was not as hot as I had previously thought.

Respectful cooperation

For me, the main thing was consistent, open dialogue and communication. My editor clearly set out the process for me from the start, but I also felt empowered to approach her with questions or concerns. I finally had someone who was there to help me navigate this strange experience of writing a book when, during the previous months of researching and writing, that link had been sadly missing.

We had a shared willingness to understand each other. I did sometimes push back – our positive and understanding relationship gave me the confidence to do that. I did not feel uncomfortable or threatened by her input. I felt comfortable asking questions when I didn’t understand a comment, and equally, my editor seemed happy asking questions when she wasn’t sure about the subject matter or significance of something. We had respect for each other, the end result was something beautiful, and I feel we created it in partnership.

About Anna Cale

Anna Cale is an arts and culture writer who specialises in classic film and television. She has written for a number of publications and websites, including Little White Lies, Film Stories and the British Film Institute, and has also appeared on Radio 4.

Her writing subjects are wide-ranging, but she has an interest in British cinema of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, and in particular, showcasing the role of strong female voices in film culture. Her first book, The Real Diana Dors, will be published on 30 July 2021 with White Owl, a Pen and Sword imprint.

 

About the CIEP

The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) is a non-profit body promoting excellence in English language editing. We set and demonstrate editorial standards, and we are a community, training hub and support network for editorial professionals – the people who work to make text accurate, clear and fit for purpose.

Find out more about:

 

Photo credits: writer’s desk by Nick Morrison; Together by Nick Fewings on Unsplash.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

Using plain English to maximise immersion in fiction

When most people think of plain English, they think of functional, practical non-fiction texts rather than stories. Here, Katherine Kirk looks at how the plain English principles can be applied to works of fiction.

In this article, I’ll explore these questions:

  • What is plain English and why does it matter for fiction?
  • How can plain English principles improve the fiction reader’s experience?
  • Does writing in plain English mean stripping fiction of its artistry?

Striking the right tone

In my former life as an English teacher, I found that many of my students, in an attempt to elevate their English to the highest possible level, were obfuscating their concepts by becoming fixated on implementing linguistic arabesques which were utterly drenched in verbosity at the expense of clarity.

If you’re still reading after that ridiculous sentence, thank you for sticking around. Most readers wouldn’t.

Using loftier words to sound like a ‘better writer’ is more common than you’d think. Students trying to pad their essays will devour a thesaurus whole and vomit the longest words onto the page. Writers for whom English might not be their first language – and some for whom it is – will often turn to the flashiest word and throw it into a sentence it has no right to be in, having missed the connotations and nuances that make a word fit just right.

Writers who hold the literary arts to be the most profound form of human expression (and rightly so!) might feel that they would be doing their book an injustice by writing it the way they speak, and that readers who come across simple sentences and words might feel that their text lacks colour.

As copyeditors, one of our aims is to have the readers’ interests at heart. Hopefully, this article will help you to show your clients that writing in plain English doesn’t mean writing in boring English, and how simplifying their texts makes it easier for readers to fall in love with their story.

Aristotle said, over two millennia ago, ‘The virtue of style is to be clear … and to be neither mean nor above the prestige of the subject, but appropriate.’ He’s talking about using the right language for the job at hand. The fiction writer’s job is to write a story their readers can escape into. Our job is to help them.

What is plain English and why does it matter?

When most people think of plain English, it’s with regard to non-fiction texts, such as warning labels, legal or government documents, or instructional guides. Laura Ripper and Luke Finley wrote an excellent introduction to plain English for the CIEP blog a few years ago.

Most plain English principles tend to be aimed at businesses and organisations that want their users, clients or readers to be able to access the information as easily as possible. But how does that apply to fiction writers?

Dr Neil James sets out more general principles, saying that plain English writing should have:

  • a reader-centred approach
  • a clear core message
  • the right level of detail
  • a fit-for-purpose structure
  • coherence and flow
  • clear document design
  • a light but professional tone
  • a readable style
  • an active voice
  • an efficient style
  • an error-free text
  • evidence-based testing.

I think these can apply to fiction too. Let’s dive in!

A reader-centred approach

Good writing transmits ideas from the writer’s mind to the reader’s. The reader imagines the world, hears the dialogue, and feels the emotions. That is immersion, and the best way to get the reader into it is by the most direct route possible – using the same language they think in. When this fails, readers write reviews like ‘I felt lost’ or ‘I couldn’t get into it’. Keeping the reader in mind means making the writing accessible to them.

A clear core message

To successfully transmit that message, it needs to be clear. In fiction, the message is multifaceted: the writer is trying to convey who the characters are, what the story is, and why it matters. If the complexity of their language is getting in the way of any of those things, then readers will feel lost. They might lose interest in the story, too. Writers must beware of tangling up the meaning and concealing it behind words readers need to look up, and sentences they’ll need to read three times to decode. They should also be careful of having a storyline so convoluted that the reader needs a wiki to keep track. If the message is clear and accessible, the reader will have a better experience (and come back for more).

The right level of detail

Sometimes in the effort to convey that image clearly to the reader, a writer might veer too far in the opposite direction by being overly specific and spelling out every little detail. Encourage your clients to give your readers the benefit of the doubt and to trust them to fill in the spaces between the words; removing the fluff will make that easier.

A fit-for-purpose structure

Plain English is about more than just sentence-level clarity. If the story jumps from flashback to flashback, wanders aimlessly through nested dreams, explodes into en dash confetti and then suddenly switches to a second-person account written entirely in italics, the reader will absolutely get confused. Some books manage a labyrinthine structure. In Danielewski’s House of Leaves, the labyrinth is the point. For genre fiction, though, the ease with which your reader can navigate the story directly correlates with their ability to be immersed in it.

Coherence and flow

We can’t all be James Joyce or Samuel Beckett; sometimes the best stories are the ones that readers can actually follow. Leading readers on a journey through the story is what good writing is all about. You don’t want to lure them into the woods only to run off, leaving them to either struggle to catch up or get lost entirely. Writers should be walking just ahead, beckoning the reader around the next corner.

Clear document design

Literary fiction can be a tricky genre to get right because many writers think it means you have to be innovative with punctuation, structure and formatting. Experimentation is fine, if it’s done well – but for immersion’s sake, for writing that disappears behind the story, it’s better to give readers what they expect by following established conventions.

A light but professional tone

Readers may feel intimidated by overly formal text, or text that is dense and inaccessible to them. They might respect the writer, but they probably won’t have as much fun reading the story as they would if it were easier for them to understand. Throwing themselves entirely into the writer’s world takes a certain kind of vulnerability, and if readers feel shut out by language they can’t understand, then they’re not going to do that. Using the right language helps readers to trust the writer and to be willing to open themselves up to having their hearts absolutely destroyed by the story. If the writer is too caught up in trying to sound smarter, then they lose the readers’ trust.

A readable style

The key thing is readability. The most beautiful sentence in the world might be a multilayered, poetic work of art, but if it requires a doctorate to unpick and understand, then the writer is excluding the majority of their readership – and for what? To show off their thesaurus?

An active voice

Now, this is where many people who like to give advice to writers tend to overgeneralise and lead writers astray. It’s also where robotic grammar checkers tend to overcorrect at the expense of clarity, flow and readability. Active voice is about making it clear who is doing what, but passive voice isn’t wrong. In the famous opening line of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen isn’t wrong to use the passive voice; she’s making a point, and a sarcastic one at that, setting up the entire premise of the novel.

The passive voice can and should be used with intention. Above all, aim for clarity.

An efficient style

Another bit of writerly advice that well-meaning but often misinformed people give is to cut specific words or sentence structures. It’s silly to make blanket rules when language is infinitely variable. What writers (and editors) can do is try to be as efficient as possible, such as choosing a strong adjective over two weak ones.

Simplicity doesn’t always mean fewer words. Sometimes it means using a few simpler words to convey a complex idea. Having an efficient style means getting the idea from your mind into your reader’s mind without a detour into the dictionary.

An error-free text

The purpose of grammar and punctuation is to eliminate ambiguity and enhance clarity. A logically and grammatically consistent text ensures the reader understands the story the way the writer intended them to. If the writer is trying to force the grammar into doing something it’s not meant to, they’re more likely to make a mistake. They may find themselves tangled up in semicolons and en dashes, and the reader will be just as muddled. That said, fiction is far more forgiving of its rules being bent. Being able to strike a balance between accuracy and a comfortable narrative voice is one of the key skills a fiction copyeditor needs to develop.

Evidence-based testing

What is being tested? It might be the theme or hypothesis behind the story (the ‘what if?’), or it might be the conflict between the characters, or the plausibility of the made-up science. Testing the characters by putting them under pressure is what fuels character development. Show, don’t tell means that fiction writers need to give their readers the evidence of that development by letting them see it unfold.

Reading levels in the UK and US

Putting all these principles together can help editors to make sure their clients’ writing is at an appropriate level for their target readers. According to the Center for Plain Language, the majority of American readers are reading at 8th grade level (12 to 14 years old), and the National Literary Trust reports that many adults in the UK have poor literary skills. So, having the novel in a register that requires a tertiary education to understand means the writer is probably not going to sell many books.

Maintaining the writer’s voice

Some writers may balk at the idea of simplifying their language, thinking that to do so would be to rob the text of any sense of artistry. Editors may worry that they’ll be stripping away the writer’s voice. Be careful to maintain the balance; suggest rather than dictate, and let the writer make the call.

Achieving clarity takes a certain kind of artistry. Do it with the readers in mind and they’ll keep coming back for more.

Wrapping up: plain English in fiction

The elements of plain English writing can apply as much to fiction as to non-fiction texts. Writers and editors can aim for:

  • a reader-centred approach
  • the right level of detail
  • coherence and flow
  • a readable and efficient style
  • an error-free text.

How do you apply plain English principles in your writing or editing? Drop us a line in the comments below.

More guidance on working with plain English

The CIEP has some helpful resources to help you work with plain English.

About Katherine Kirk

Katherine Kirk is a fiction editor who has to force herself to simplify the English in her own writing.

Rumoured to have eaten a dictionary as a child, she suffers from abibliophobia (the fear of running out of books to read). She speaks four and a half Englishes and can often be found muttering to herself about the New York Times Bee’s prejudice against most of them.

 

About the CIEP

The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) is a non-profit body promoting excellence in English language editing. We set and demonstrate editorial standards, and we are a community, training hub and support network for editorial professionals – the people who work to make text accurate, clear and fit for purpose.

Find out more about:

 

Photo credits: reflection by Jingwei Ke; hedge maze by Tycho Atsma; straight road by Karsten Würth, all on Unsplash.

Self-help: a guide to reflexive pronouns

It’s easy to get confused about reflexive pronouns. Cathy Tingle gets a sense of ‘self’ as she reviews how we refer to ourselves.

One of my favourite lines from a movie is in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, where our protagonist turns to his casino table companion and says: ‘Allow myself to introduce … myself.’ In addition to the words, I love his visible effort in working out what to say after ‘introduce’. Of course there’s no other way forward for Austin than to repeat himself with ‘myself’.

Locating subject and object

The impulse to overuse reflexive pronouns is out there. In a #NoPainerExplainer tweet, the ever-helpful John Espirian sets out the rule for ‘myself’ (with useful graphics):

Use ‘myself’ when you’re the subject and the object: ‘I looked at myself.’ If someone or something else is the subject and you’re the object, use ‘me’: ‘Tony gave the Pringles to me.’ Don’t use ‘myself’ to sound formal.

Pringles, mmmm. What was I saying? Oh yes – John’s explainer is useful in two main ways. Firstly, it neatly captures the issue for Austin Powers – he treated what should have been the subject (‘me’) as the object. This applies to any sort of reflexive pronoun – it comes into play when the subject is also the object, and this -self or -selves word should be used to refer to the object only.

Secondly, John makes the point that people often use ‘myself’ to ‘sound formal’. This certainly applies to Austin Powers, and may also be behind the overuse of ‘yourself’, of which there seemed to be a proliferation among call handlers about a decade ago: ‘Can I talk to yourself about PPI today?’ In terms of where it might come from, people say ‘Your Honour’ to a judge, ‘Your Grace’ to an archbishop, ‘Your Majesty’ to the Queen precisely to avoid saying ‘you’. Perhaps the everyday use of ‘yourself’ for ‘you’ in sales teams is a trickle-down of this – after all, the customer is king.

Reflexive pronouns – how many?

But there are more reflexive pronouns than just ‘myself’ and ‘yourself’. The Oxford A–Z of Grammar and Punctuation, edited by John Seely, lists nine: ‘myself, ourselves, yourself, yourselves, himself, herself, itself, oneself, themselves.’ David Marsh, in For Who the Bell Tolls, adds ‘a few variations such as the dialect thi’sen, the biblical “heal thyself” and the “royal we” ourself’.

Recently I was copy-editing a book that had been through more than ten editions. Its original plan was to alternate by chapter the gender of pronouns: in Chapter 1 ‘if a person sold her car …’, in Chapter 2 ‘he would be breaking the law if …’ and so on. However, with the addition of new chapters this system was starting to fall apart, so the author and I decided to use the singular ‘they’ throughout. It was going swimmingly, until I got to ‘himself’.

The only option, according to the lists in Seely and Marsh, would have been to replace ‘himself’ with ‘themselves’. But if we want it to be obvious that we are talking about one person, ‘themselves’ doesn’t always offer enough clarity. For example,

The killer-survivor will keep the property for themselves

could give the impression that the killer and survivor are two people. If the reader went back and reviewed the context, they would conclude that it is one person, but as our aim is to lessen the reader’s burden, this is hardly satisfactory.

The other issue is the jarring effect of an apparent lack of agreement between the subject and object. The subject is singular; the object seems to be plural. For example,

a person cannot have rights against themselves

raises in the reader a sense of dissonance they could do without when there is already enough to concentrate on in the meaning.

After riffling through the entirety of my reference shelf to find a solution to this conundrum, the 17th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) offered a development:

[T]hemself (like yourself) may be used to signal the singular antecedent (though some people will prefer themselves).

This comparison of ‘themself’ and ‘yourself’ is useful. Perhaps Her Majesty’s ‘ourself’ falls into the same category.

Going online, I found ‘Themself is a perfectly cromulent word’ (at Conscious Style Guide), in which editor, trainer, columnist and SfEP Advanced Professional Member Sarah Grey argues ‘there’s no question’ that we need ‘themself’, not only to show the proper respect to people who want to use a gender-nonbinary pronoun but also for clarity. Citing instances of its use since the 15th century, Grey describes CMOS’s new rule about ‘themself’ as the word’s overdue ‘mark of acceptance into formal English’.

So I allowed myself to introduce ‘themself’ into the text. And, yes, it looked better, and seemed clearer. But I did let the author and proofreader know I’d done it, and why.

‘Advances in language help us envisage other ways of being,’ Grey concludes. It’s a vision that Carol Saller, former editor of the CMOS’s online Q&A section, echoes in her Times Literary Supplement review of Lane Greene’s Talk on the Wild Side, a book that depicts language as untameable, ‘a wild animal like a wolf, well adapted for its conditions and needs’. Saller writes that Greene’s anti-stickler view is ‘a tolerant and humane view of language that will unite, not divide’. Using language to move closer to each other? As Austin Powers might say, ‘Yeah, baby, yeah!’

Cathy TingleCathy Tingle, an Advanced Professional Member, is a member of the CIEP’s information team and a tutor for Publishing Scotland. Her business, DocEditor, specialises in non-fiction copyediting.

 

 


This article originally appeared in the March/April 2019 edition of Editing Matters.


Photo credits: two kinds by Michał Parzuchowski; wrong way by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

Getting to grips with grammar and punctuation

By Annie Jackson

Do you go cold when you hear the words ‘dangling participle’? Does the mere mention of a comma splice or a tautology make you anxious? Do you have a faint memory, perhaps from primary school, that people who write ‘proper’ English never start a sentence with ‘And’ or ‘But’? Perhaps you’ve been flummoxed by the terms used in the school materials that you’ve had to work with while homeschooling your children (you are not alone: see this article by the former Children’s Laureate Michael Rosen).

Actually, you almost certainly know much more about grammar and punctuation than you realise. The ‘rules’ are often no more than old-fashioned preferences or prejudice, and may not be relevant anyway. It all depends on the text: a novel for young adults, an information leaflet for patients at a doctor’s surgery, or an annual report for a major company – each requires a very different approach. The tone in which the document is written, and the intended readership, will dictate how strictly grammar and punctuation rules should be applied.

If you work with words, in any capacity, and you feel that your knowledge could do with a brush-up, then the new online course from CIEP, Getting to Grips with Grammar and Punctuation, could be just what you need.

Why both grammar and punctuation?

Let’s see how the Collins Dictionary defines grammar: ‘the ways that words can be put together in order to make sentences’. It defines punctuation as ‘the use of symbols such as full stops or periods, commas, or question marks to divide written words into sentences and clauses’.

This explains why these two subjects have to go hand in hand. Grammar is about putting words together; punctuation helps the reader to make sense of those words in the order in which they have been presented. Used well, the grammar and punctuation chosen should be almost imperceptible, so that nothing comes between the reader and the text. If they are used poorly, the reader will be confused, may have to go back over sentences as they puzzle out the meaning, and may eventually stop reading as it’s just too hard to figure out.

For the want of a comma …

Take this well-known example. ‘Let’s eat, Grandma’ is a friendly invitation for Granny to join the family meal. If you remove that tiny comma, the poor woman is at the mercy of her cannibal grandchildren.

More seriously, a misplaced comma can have huge legal and financial implications (see ‘The comma that cost a million dollars’ from the New York Times).

Poor grammar can have unintentional comic effects (dangling participles are particularly good for this, as you can see here). It could even affect your love life (see this Guardian article ‘Dating disasters: Why bad grammar could stop you finding love online’).

So it’s worth knowing the rules you must follow, and those that can sometimes be ignored.

Why this course?

Getting to Grips with Grammar and Punctuation is for anyone who works with words. It aims to:

  • clarify the basic rules of English grammar
  • clarify the rules of English punctuation
  • discuss some finer points of usage and misusage
  • explain the contexts in which rules should or need not be applied.

This course alternates units on grammar and punctuation, with two basic units followed by two that go into more detail. Each unit has several sets of short, light-hearted exercises on which you can test yourself to see how well you have taken in the information. The penultimate unit discusses finer points of usage, and finally, there are three longer exercises on which to practise everything you’ve learned from the course. There is no final assessment for the course, but every student is assigned a tutor and is encouraged to ask for their help if any questions arise as they work through it.

There is an extensive glossary of grammatical terms as well as a list of resources, in print and online, for further study. This includes a number of entertaining and opinionated books on grammar which will prove, if nothing else, that even the pundits don’t always agree.

By the end of this course, you should have a clear idea of some of the finer points (and many of the pitfalls) of English grammar and punctuation. You should have developed some sensitivity to potential errors, acquired greater confidence, and learned strategies to make any written work you deal with clearer, more effective, more appropriate and even, perhaps, more elegant. And we hope that you will have found it interesting and entertaining at the same time.

Annie Jackson has been an editor for longer than she cares to admit. She tutors several CIEP courses and was one of the team who wrote the new grammar course. Despite many years wrestling with authors’ language, and before that a classics degree, she realises there’s always something new to learn about grammar.

With thanks to the other members of the course team who contributed to this post.


Photo credits: books by Clarissa Watson on Unsplash

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

 

That which we call a relative clause

Riffat Yusuf is an editor that or who (or possibly which) advocates for what to head ALL relative clauses.

Editing would be simpler if we replaced which, that and who/m with what. No more asking why it was the boy who and not that cried wolf. No more whiching and thating Jack’s house. No more consulting BBC Bitesize Fowlers for restrictive and non-restrictive clauses. For people what need precedents, I refer you to hwæt, used extensively as a relative pronoun in the 13th century. I refer you also to more recent usage (albeit the aspirated interrogative form, inconveniently not functioning as a relative pronoun, but go with it), viz. Meg Mortimer from Crossroads: ‘Hwhat are you doing, Sandy?’

To be clear, I’m not grammar averse; I’m grammar resentful. Why was I never taught that there were words to describe other words? Pupils at my school had to study French or German to relearn English. Even then, we made do with barely-there word classes – ‘je’, ‘tu’, ‘il’ and ‘elle’ were the ‘things’ before ‘doing words’. Still, over time I upskilled enough to teach English grammar and sentence structure to other adults, so you’d think I’d be familiar with relative pronouns. And with Hart’s at hand, I surely would have plugged any restrictive and non-restrictive clause-shaped holes. You’d think.

Relative newcomer

My true, actual, concerted, write-it-down learning started when I joined a grammar practice group that SfEP Professional Member Liz Zachary very kindly set up on the online discussion platform Slack. The sentence we were looking at was almost prescient: ‘What was a mystery twenty years ago now seems entirely straightforward.’ (If only!) Fellow Slackers commented on the use of that for restrictive clauses and which for non-restrictive clauses – parenthetical clauses, if you will. Whaaat????

I find the word ‘restrictive’ misleading. In the sentence ‘The house that Jack built is in a desirable neighbourhood’, the restrictive relative clause is ‘that Jack built’. What is being restricted here? Clearly, ‘that Jack built’ refers to the house, the antecedent; how is that restrictive, though? Calling it a defining relative clause is less perplexing because – at the risk of invoking the scorn of grammarians and children in Year 6 – I suppose it defines Jack, not Jill, as the builder.

Pause that clause

The reason why the restrictive relative clause is thus named is not to be found in the 1611 King James Bible. Pausing for digression, however, we observe the use of which where a noun is the antecedent (‘Our Father which art in Heaven’), and that where the antecedent is a pronoun (‘Blessed are they that mourn’). Aesop’s protagonist in the 17th century would have been the boy which cried wolf.

Moving along, we pay homage to Sheila Graves Geoghegan. Who was this scholar who in 1975 wrote, nay, hand-typed, authoritatively on the usage of relative clauses in Old, Middle and New English? Let’s not stalk her further lest we bump into an obituary, but, Ohio State University, what more does an erudite philologist need to do to be ranked among your notable alumni?

That which is restrictive

Would this be a good time to point out that British English restrictive clauses aren’t restricted to a single head? Whatever is built by Jack can take that or which as its relative pronoun. Or neither. To confound further, Jack can be the man who or that built the house. Either, not neither.

This would not be a good time to dwell upon whom, with its verb-or-preposition-as-object chicanery. The ‘he/she/his/her’ adjudicators for who or whom – straightforward enough for all but this petitioner – likely have their origins in the Pendle witch trials.

Why restrictive, then? For this, we consult Grammarly. To start with, if calling a restrictive clause a definitive clause doesn’t make things clearer, then we can call it an essential clause instead because the information it provides is, um, essential. So, ‘that Jack built’ is an essential part of the sentence that would otherwise read ‘The house is in a desirable neighbourhood.’

If, however, almost everybody except for Cambridge University insists on calling restrictive relative clauses just that, then Jack needs to up sticks for Grammarly’s more sound construction: ‘Children who eat vegetables are likely to be healthy.’ The relative clause-free sentence is ‘Children are likely to be healthy.’ Here, even I can see how the relative clause ‘who eat vegetables’ puts restrictions on the antecedent noun: it’s not children who exercise, or who are happy or who engage in any other health-giving pursuit that are being referred to.

And so to trample on non-restrictive relative clauses. This much I have learned: you can recognise a non-restrictive clause in British English because it always takes which as its relative pronoun. It must be offset by a pair of commas; in a sentence, a non-restrictive clause looks like this: ‘The house, which Jack built, is in a desirable neighbourhood.’ And if you swap the commas for brackets – ‘(which Jack built)’ – it’s easier to discern the clause’s aside-like, non-essential, non-restrictive, non-defining function.

I haven’t unearthed the grammar shortcuts or mnemonics I’d hoped to when I set out to learn more (anything) about relative pronouns and relative clauses. But if syntax acquisition is not beyond the ken of seven-year-olds, then there’s hope for late bloomers like me. Such as I? Here we go again …

Riffat Yusuf is a West London-based proofreader and copyeditor, and a content editor for a small structural engineering company. She has been editing since 2018, and before that she taught ESOL for 10 years and brought up her family. In the dim and distant past she was employed in journalism, radio and television. In the future, she’d like to work on ELT resources.

 


This article originally appeared in the November/December 2019 edition of Editing Matters.


Photo credits: houses by Lee Jeffs; tomatoes by Davies Designs Studio on Unsplash

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

Commas: the chameleon conundrum

Commas can be very useful little additions in our punctuation arsenal but they can also be intensely irritating. Luke Finley discusses using commas with conjunctions and independent clauses – an insertion that can raise questions and even arguments.

When I looked at commas in the July/August and September/October 2017 issues of Editing Matters, I warned that I was covering only a few of the uses of this chameleon of the punctuation world. Another that has come up on the member forums since then is their use when joining two independent clauses.

My thanks go to Shuna Meade for raising the question on the forum, and to the respondents on the thread for helping to clarify the point (and providing the chameleon metaphor!).

What’s the issue?

Some of us were taught (and some of us have ten-year-olds who are still being taught) never to use a comma before and or but when joining two independent clauses. In reality, there’s clearly no such rule.

I am a copy-editor and I work from home

I am a copy-editor, but I used to work for the council

You could insert a comma in the first example or delete the one in the second without making either of these sentences wrong. But if that’s true, why use a comma in one case and not the other? The choice of conjunction is different, clearly, but is that the decisive factor? Not necessarily; these sentences are also acceptable:

I am a copy-editor, and I have a ten-year-old son

Nick has a son too but he’s already a teenager

In the absence of a strict grammatical rule, then, how do we decide?

Close connection

The strength of the connection between the two clauses is probably the most useful consideration. In my first example I chose not to use a comma because the two clauses seemed inextricably linked: the fact that I work at home tells you something relevant about the kind of copy-editor I am.

In the second example there is a shift of focus between past and present: the comma marks this more distant connection.

In the third example, omitting the comma might misleadingly imply a connection (some illegal, nepotistic subcontracting arrangement?) between two clauses that aren’t very closely related.

The fourth is maybe the most ambiguous case: I felt that the shift here was between the previous sentence and this one, not within the sentence, so I didn’t need a comma. But this is a style choice and you’d be free to approach it differently.

However, it’s worth noting that, by definition, but is generally more likely to introduce a contrast or a change of emphasis than and, so the comma is more likely to be appropriate.

Consider also whether there’s a second subject in the second clause: if so, the relationship between the two clauses is likely to be less close – although this is certainly not always the case.

Removing ambiguity

The comma before a conjunction can help to prevent misreading:

Aristotle was an early empiricist and no great thinker …

Quite a bold claim! But the sentence continues:

… who followed could be taken seriously without having engaged with his works.

Serious misunderstanding may be unlikely here, but a comma before the conjunction would prevent an unintended jarring or comical effect that might bring the reader up short.

Prosody

Commas are sometimes described as marking natural pauses in a sentence. Steven Pinker (The Sense of Style, Penguin, 2014) points out that this was once their main function, citing Jane Austen’s famous opening line to Pride and Prejudice – its two commas would now both be regarded as incorrect. Dickens also peppers his long sentences with commas: some of them now seem unnecessary or wrong, but if you ever have to read his work aloud, you might be grateful for them.

The description of commas as marking a pause isn’t always helpful – it’s fairly subjective, and it doesn’t apply equally to all comma uses. It might be worth bearing in mind in relation to the usage discussed here, though: where there’s a shift of focus as already discussed, a pause is also more likely.

Luke Finley is an Advanced Professional Member, and set up Luke Finley Editorial in 2013. He will edit just about anything, but specialises in social policy and politics.

 

 


This article originally appeared in the September/October 2018 edition of Editing Matters.


Photo credits: Chameleon by Cécile Brasseur; Pride and Prejudice by Elaine Howlin, both on Unsplash

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

Gerunds: it’s all to do with behaviour

Gerunds can be tricky beasts. But Luke Finley has got the measure of them, and guides us through some of their uses.

The gerund is a verb in its -ing form that is functioning like or as a noun. Distinguishing between the gerund and the present participle – also the verb in its -ing form – is not always easy, but generally it can be regarded as a gerund if it’s behaving more like a noun, and as a present participle if it’s behaving more like an adjective. Recognising the ambiguities of this in practice, modern grammars tend not to categorise them separately: Huddleston and Pullum’s Cambridge Grammar talks about the ‘gerund-participle’.

Clear-cut uses

In some positions, it’s quite clear that the -ing form is functioning as a gerund. For example, where it’s used as the subject or object (or part of it):

Writing a sample sentence will clarify this

I’m trying to communicate this in writing

Sometimes a modifying adjective will make the noun function of the gerund clearer:

Poor-quality writing won’t help

The explanation won’t be clear if the writing is of poor quality

In other situations the gerund may be harder to identify:

My deftly explaining this aspect of grammar will help many thousands of people

The -ing word here is modified by an adverb: definitely verb-like rather than noun-like behaviour. But it’s still part of the noun phrase, so it’s a gerund.

Another common use of gerunds is in forming compound nouns:

In my free time I enjoy water-skiing, base-jumping and free-ironing*

*Some artistic licence has been employed in this sentence.

This process seems especially popular in the world of corporate jargon: brainstorming, streamlining, upscaling, and so on.

Because of the gerund’s dual properties of noun and verb, new verbs are often then back-formed from these compound nouns; to crowdsource might be the kind of neologism some people love to hate, but it’s a good demonstration of the elasticity of language.

Trickier uses

One trickier aspect of usage is deciding between the gerund and the to-infinitive to follow a verb. Sometimes only one or the other is possible. In other cases either is possible but the meaning may be subtly different. This can often trip up English learners, even those who are quite fluent. No doubt this is because there isn’t a hard-and-fast rule: it depends on what the preceding verb is. If you speak English as a first language you tend to pick the right one by instinct, without even being aware that you’re making a decision; learners of English have to try to memorise lists of what goes with what. In the following examples only the gerund works:

I enjoy running by the sea

I can’t imagine swimming in it

With different verbs – even though the meanings are not that distant from the first versions – the gerund would not work and only the infinitival form will do:

I want to run by the sea

I don’t need to swim in it

The verb like can work either way, but with slight nuances of meaning. With the gerund, the enjoyment of the activity itself is emphasised. With the to-infinitive, there is greater emphasis on the regularity or repeated nature of it:

I like running on Sundays, but sometimes I have to do the ironing instead

I like to run on Sundays, but I only like to swim in the summer

This choice between the gerund and the infinitival form doesn’t occur only after verbs. And in some cases it’s a difficult call. You might see a formulation like the following sentence in a relatively formal text:

We conducted this survey with the aim to understand gender variations in …

Is this wrong? It sounds stilted, but it’s not necessarily grammatically incorrect. In a proofread you might judge it just about acceptable and leave it, but in a copy-edit I think you’d be likely to change it to the more natural-sounding gerund: the aim of understanding.

Luke Finley is an Advanced Professional Member, and set up Luke Finley Editorial in 2013. He will edit just about anything, but specialises in social policy and politics.

 

 


This article originally appeared in the January/February 2018 edition of Editing Matters.


Photo credits: Water-skiing by Tobia Sola, Running by the sea by Hamish Duncan on Unsplash

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.