How to Help Writers Write Better

By Andrea Susan Glass

As copyeditors, we love helping writers produce an error-free product, whether a book, article, website, report, resume, thesis, or whatever medium you copyedit.

However, I’ve always wished my authors (I edit books only) would learn from my edits. And usually they don’t. After all, they have me, their trusty copyeditor.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy getting my hands on a meaty manuscript and polishing it to near perfection. But I’ve always felt if the clients we work with had some knowledge of “proper” writing basics, our work would be a whole lot easier. And anything these folks write—that they didn’t run through a copyeditor—would be at least, not embarrassing.

So, I thought I would share some of what I, and other editors, consider basic grammar and punctuation rules that would ease the copyeditor’s job and add to the client’s writing skills.

  1. Remove excess adverbs. I can’t tell you how the word “literally” sends shivers through my body—literally. I was on a webinar today and I swear, the speaker used that most often incorrectly used word in literally every other sentence. And this rule holds true for actually, really, very, that, and all those other –ly words. Show your clients that with strong verbs they don’t need to use as many adverbs. Here’s an example: “Jane ran quickly to get home in time.” Instead of “ran quickly” it could be changed to “People scattered to get out of her way as Jane raced home.”
  2. Use consistent punctuation and consistent words. It’s amazing how many writers don’t know that you only need one space at the end of a sentence. Right? And how about those commas: it varies between overuse and underuse and inconsistencies. I don’t know about you, but I’m so annoyed when a writer goes back and forth between contractions (I’m, we’re…) and non-contractions (I am, we are…). For me, it changes the voice from casual to formal. I’m especially miffed when I see this in books from New York publishers. I just don’t get it, but I do point this out to my authors and leave the final decision to them. I also see a lot of inconsistencies in the use of written numbers vs. numerals. Various style guides have rules on this, but when working with a self-published author, I usually create a style guide with the author choosing one over the other. Capitalizations, abbreviations, and acronyms are other inconsistences I often see.
  3. Turn passive into active. I can’t believe how many books I read that begin, “It was…” I find it difficult to explain the difference between active and passive sentences to novice authors. I explain that if you start a sentence with the subject, you have an active sentence. However, some authors develop a style where passive is their voice. “There was a pot cooking on the stove” could be made active by writing “A pot was cooking on the stove.” You find the passive voice often when no subject is apparent so using passive accommodates the lack of a subject.
  4. Avoid clichés like the plague. I am so tired of reading “each and every.” I even see it in books by New York publishers. Or “at the end of the day…” or “a no-brainer” or “as luck would have it.” They’re clichés because they’re in everyday usage, but they’re stale and unoriginal. We need to encourage writers to be fresh and find their unique voice.                                                                       

I’m sure you have your own pet peeves, so please post them in the comments.

SD/PEN would love to have you contribute a blog post on our site on any aspect of copyediting. Send your post to And please post your comments below so we know what posts appeal to you and what topics you’d like to see here.

3 thoughts to “How to Help Writers Write Better”

  1. Hi Andrea,

    I am an editor and I disagree with much of your post.

    1. “Literally” written in sentence after sentence isn’t ideal, but if that’s my author’s voice, I want to know that. It helps inform my ability to retain their voice as I clean up the flotsam and jetsam. (By the by, since you’re citing issues with a speaker and not a writer, you may be interested in reading this Carolyn Hax advice column from earlier this week:
    2. I work with authors who learned to write using two spaces. If that’s what they’re comfortable with typing, who am I to argue? Find and replace is an excellent tool and I am happy to use it. As far as inconsistencies, they’re moving around their text (I assume) before it comes to me. I’m there with fresh eyes to find those issues. I’m applying the structure of a style guide (usually Chicago for books) and applying it to numbers and more. Isn’t that why they hired me?
    3. I don’t consider passive wrong. Sometimes it’s preferred! That’s a blanket statement that I couldn’t defend.
    4. As with your “literally” example, I wouldn’t want a cliche in every sentence, paragraph, or every page. But I don’t see the problem with including some. We live in the world and the world uses cliches.

    I’m the editor. They’re hiring me for a reason. I’m there to get rid of anything that gets in the way of their message. The things you’ve noted are examples I consider part of my job; they don’t irritate or annoy me.

    Don’t get me started on finding misogyny, racism, bigotry, and more! THAT’S what gets my goat. 🙂

    Always enjoy the opportunity to think through my choices and decisions. Editors are a diverse group, aren’t we?

  2. Katie,
    Feel free to write some blog posts with your own ideas. It’s challenging for me to write a new post every month and we are encouraging members to submit posts. We all have our own experiences and can learn from each other and then make our own choices.

    1. I have! Four of them.
      * Tips for Joining a Professional Organization:
      * My Book Club: Start-Up Basics and Personal Benefits:
      * How My Trip to the EFA Conference Paid for Itself:
      * Diversify Marketing Efforts to Find Freelance Editing Work:

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