Editing Nonfiction Prose, part 1

Editing Prose Series

In the world of scholarly nonfiction, prose can get very dense and specialized. You need to (1) have a sharp eye for details and language, (2) balance consistency with flexibility, and (3) keep a great style sheet. It helps (sometimes a lot) to have a topic familiarity, but this is not strictly necessary. This two-part series covers some key concepts for editing nonfiction: dealing with dense language, specialty terms/jargon, bias-free language, and different kinds of quoted material.

Dense Language

Sometimes it seems scholars are trying to prevent communication with their long words and lengthy, convoluted sentences. Textbooks and journal articles can be very specialized and sometimes quite esoteric.

  • Relax, take a deep breath, loosen your brain, and read. Try reading a few paragraphs before jumping in to edit. You’ll get “in the zone” with the author’s style and start to get feel for his or her rhythm. Then you’ll start to see where you can make changes.
  • Look for subjects, verbs, and objects, even if you don’t understand the text. You can grammatically follow a sentence, even if it is peppered with lots of big words or goes on and on.
  • Think of the audience and whether they will understand. Reader-centered editing is becoming more accepted as a valid approach, and it can really serve you when working on dense material.
  • Scholars like paragraph-long sentences sometimes. Look for ways to break it up without intruding too much on the author’s voice. Sometimes a simple period and removal of a conjunction can do wonders for clarification.
  • Keep a really good style sheet. I put things on the style sheet I want to be sure to remember later, and anything I want the client and eventual proofreader to know about. A good style sheet can save you when you’re in the thick of a long, difficult edit.
  • Know when you’re in over your head, and be willing to send back a project that you can’t do. (I once tried to edit highly technical materials and immediately found I couldn’t do it.)

Specialty Terms

Every domain of knowledge has its own set of lingo, jargon, and specialty terms. If you have a topic specialty—science, medical, economics, music, and so on—you can do a good job appropriately editing these materials (plus, you can market yourself better and charge more).

  • Be ready to look up frequent terms and phrases if you aren’t familiar with them. Example: the phrase “always already” is common literature critique and postmodernism, but I’ve seen editors unfamiliar with this phrase delete one of the words, which really changes the meaning.
  • If you cultivate a niche, invest in some specific style guides and specialty dictionaries, and bookmark relevant websites where appropriate.
  • When editing for a journal, keep a couple of copies of the journal handy for looking up quick style issues. You’ll have a master style guide for the journal, and it doesn’t hurt to keep a list of common terms handy. For example, in an economics journal should the correct phrase be Pareto optimal, pareto optimal, or pareto-optimal (or something else)?

Bias-Free Language

Scholarly publishers definitely want to avoid biased language, and major issues should be fixed by the time it comes to the copyediting stage. However, you should be alert for terms that have inherent gender bias that don’t need to be that way.

  •  “he or she” and “him or her” is perfectly acceptable, even if they appear a lot. S/he is generally not acceptable. Neither is him/her or he/she (basically, don’t use the slash).
  • The singular “they” is growing in use and is grammatically correct (even if it sounds awkward to my ears).
  • Replace gender-based words with gender-free words, like “fireman” with “fire fighter” and “mailman” with “letter carrier,” and so on. A few words are not really replaceable (one-upmanship).
  • Some authors will alternate, using “he” and “him” in one paragraph (or section, or example, or chapter) and “she” and “her” in the next one. This is fine, as long as it is consistent.
  • Latino often generally incorporates men and women, so you don’t need Latino/a (or Chicano/a). Do use Latina when specifically referring to women; but you can safely use “Latino culture” for instance.

(This blog is certainly not a definitive source on inclusive language. For that, I strongly recommend you check out the work of Sarah Grey at Grey Editing. She has an excellent set of Resources on inclusive language and you can find a Storify of a Twitter chat on inclusive language. Also check out Karen Yin’s excellent Conscious Style Guide.)

Next in the series: editing quoted material.

Like what you see? This post is pulled from my Advanced Copyediting webinar, which will soon be available for purchase and download!

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