‘Should this be spelled out in full, or can we assume the readers will know what it means?’
That’s one of the queries I raise most often when editing or proofreading. It’s right up there with ‘I’ve reworded this for clarity – please check that the meaning is correct’ and ‘Is this an actual name? If not, it should be in lower case.’
People often get confused about how to use acronyms and initialisms, or don’t use them in a helpful way. It’s an easy trap to fall into, especially when writing about a specialist subject that you know better than some of your target readers do. This is especially common in writing about things like business, finance, science and technology.
Let’s get some terminology clear before diving any deeper into this. Strictly speaking, an acronym is a set of initials that’s pronounced as if it were a word: for example, ‘PIN’ (‘personal identification number’). If the initials are pronounced as individual letters instead, as with ‘RFT’ (‘request for tender’), they form an initialism. Both are types of abbreviation – and I’ll use this word from here onwards, just to keep this thing reasonably concise.
Why use abbreviations?
The main attraction of using abbreviations is that they help to shorten the text, making sentences more manageable for the reader. You wouldn’t want to keep on referring to ‘customer relationship management’ and ‘small to medium-sized enterprises’ over and over again when you could be keeping things short and snappy with ‘CRM’ and ‘SMEs’ instead.
Also, sometimes the abbreviation will be more familiar to the reader than the spelled-out form, though you should be careful about assuming this.
What can go wrong?
The most obvious pitfall with using abbreviations, and the main reason to take care with using them, is that some readers might not know what they mean unless you spell them out at some stage. One of the keys to successful writing is knowing your audience, and you need to be sure everything will make sense to all of your target readers. As well as limiting their understanding of your message, there’s a danger of alienating them or making them feel ignorant.
There can also be confusion between two meanings – for example, ‘SME’ can mean ‘subject matter expert’ rather than ‘small to medium-sized enterprise’.
Frequent use of abbreviations – as with numerals, symbols and capitalised words – can give the text an untidy appearance, creating a jarring effect.
Finally, it can sometimes seem that the writer is using abbreviations purely to show off their knowledge, rather than to help get their message across.
Should they be explained?
Simple answer: if you think any of the readers might need an abbreviation to be explained, it should be. Don’t worry about whether this might come across as ‘dumbing down’ – your readers are unlikely to get that impression, at least if your explanation is given in a sensible, unobtrusive way.
Where and how to explain them
Usually, it’s best to spell out an abbreviation in full where the term is first mentioned. In a long piece of work, or one that the reader might want to dip in and out of rather than reading from start to finish, you should consider doing this where the term is first used within a section or chapter. However, it isn’t a great idea to do this within a heading, as it may become too long.
The general convention is to spell out the term first, and then write the abbreviation in parentheses (round brackets) after it, although you can do it the other way round if preferred. For example:
We have decided to use a pay-per-click (PPC) model for the advertising on our website.
You may have noticed that ‘pay-per-click’ is in lower case. Some people prefer to use capitals to clarify what the initials stand for, but – unless the term is a brand name or some other sort of title (meaning it should always be capitalised anyway) – this isn’t really necessary and I don’t recommend it. Here’s another blog post of mine about the reasons to avoid overusing capitals.
It’s also worth considering including a key or glossary that spells out the abbreviations, especially in a long piece of work. This would make it easier for the reader to look up an abbreviation if they’ve forgotten what it represents. However, even if you do this, it’s still worth explaining each abbreviation where it’s first mentioned in the main text, so that the reader won’t have to jump to the key or glossary.
Other things to bear in mind
If an acronym needs to be explained but isn’t going to be used again later on, think about whether it’s worth using it at all. Wouldn’t the full spelling be good enough by itself? Unless you think some readers may find the abbreviation more familiar than the full words, it’s unnecessary and would just become a minor distraction. This is one of those situations where it can look as though you’re just showing off your knowledge.
Some organisations prefer to write acronyms (but not initialisms) in lower case, or with a capital for the first letter only when they’re actual names (‘Nato’, for example). This isn’t very common in technical or business writing, except with a few terms that began as acronyms but are now usually treated as normal words, such as ‘laser’.
If you’re referring to something plural, it’s generally best to put an ‘s’ at the end of the acronym: for example, ‘KPIs’ for ‘key performance indicators’. Make sure the ‘s’ is lower case, as it isn’t another initial.
There’s a lot to consider here, and it can be difficult to make sure you get everything right, especially if you’re using abbreviations frequently. A skilled editor or proofreader can check that your usage is coherent, conventional and consistent, and (depending on their remit) may make or suggest improvements to make it even more helpful to your readers.
Trash the slash!
Do you often use the slash (‘/’) in your writing? It often isn’t a good idea. I’ll explain why …
Using the slash
At this point, it’s obligatory for anyone in the editorial world to reel off some alternative names for the slash, so here we go: stroke, solidus, oblique, virgule, diagonal. Just to be clear: I’m only going to talk about the forward slash, and how it’s used in normal sentences rather than in things such as formulas and coding. Also, this is specifically about writing in English – the slash may well have more benefits in some other languages.
When transferring your thoughts onto a page, it’s often tempting to use the slash as a substitute for ‘and’ or ‘or’ (or maybe ‘and/or’ – I’ll come back to that later), or when you’re unsure of which word, term or expression to use.
This is fine when you’re making rough notes, or writing a draft for something that you’re going to tidy up later. But if your finished piece of work is littered with slashes, this can create problems.
People who write about business, management and technology seem especially prone to spraying slashes all over the place. It’s a habit that’s well worth getting out of.
What’s the problem?
There are a few of them …
Does the slash represent ‘and’, ‘or’ or ‘and/or’? Have you even thought about this? The reader will want to know, so it’s best to spell it out for them in words. Let’s take a look at this sentence:
The reviewer/assessor will produce a report.
Hold on … who’s going to produce that report? Is the writer using ‘reviewer’ and ‘assessor’ as two words for the same role? Or are these two separate roles, and will only one of them be responsible for the report? It could mean that both a reviewer and an assessor will produce it jointly; or maybe it’s allowing for two possibilities: just one or the other of them producing it, or the two of them doing it jointly. Do you want your reader to have to ponder all of this?
Not a good look
Slashes don’t look good in normal text – they make it look sloppy, untidy and not very professional. As I suggested earlier, your writing will look more like rough notes than a finished, polished product. The reader may well wonder whether you’ve thought it through properly. Here’s the usual litmus test: do you see frequent use of slashes in material that’s been published professionally, such as books, newspapers and magazines? I doubt it.
In particular, I don’t recommend using a slash as an easy way out when you’re struggling to choose between two words, terms or expressions. It’ll look as though you’re indecisive, you’re unsure of what you’re saying, or you haven’t put in the time and effort to think things through.
Many people ‘hear’ the words their head when they’re reading. What will they hear when they come across, for example, ‘autumn/winter’? They might hear it as ‘autumn slash winter’ (or ‘autumn stroke winter’) and then, because of the ambiguity, pause to wonder what it actually means – see the ‘reviewer/assessor’ example above, but in this case it could even mean the changeover period in late autumn and early winter.
Alternatively, they might pause straight away and consider whether to read it as ‘autumn or winter’, ‘autumn and winter’, etc. Either way, you’re making the reader stumble, and that’s always best avoided.
If at least one of the things being separated by the slash includes a space, things can get tricky. Here’s an example: ‘project sponsor/manager’. Let’s assume the slash means ‘or’ in this case. The wording could be interpreted in two ways: ‘(a) project sponsor or (b) project manager’; ‘(a) project sponsor or (b) manager’.
If it means the latter, putting spaces around the slash can clarify this: ‘project sponsor / manager’. Unfortunately, this is often frowned on, partly because the slash could end up being at the start or end of a line, which would look awkward.
You can avoid this dilemma by getting rid of the slash and using some other way of clarifying the meaning. This will depend on the context as well as your intended meaning, but something like ‘a project sponsor or project manager’ or ‘a project sponsor or a manager’ might do the trick.
Impact on page layout
If the words are long and there are no spaces around the slash, the words will be combined into an even longer unbroken chunk of text. If this appears near the end of a line, it could be forced onto the next line, leaving an unsightly gap at the end of the one above it. Or, if the text is justified (in other words, it forms a straight vertical edge at the right-hand margin), it could create a ‘gappy’ line, with startling amounts of space between the words, or a squashed line, with the opposite problem. Either of these outcomes will distract the reader.
First you need to think carefully about what you’re trying to say, and why you’re considering using a slash.
If you simply mean ‘and’, ‘or’ or ‘and/or’, why not use that instead? Be careful, though: if any of these already appear in the sentence, you’ll need to make sure its overall structure is clear (this is – of course! – one of those many things where an editor or proofreader can help you).
If you’re thinking of using a slash because you haven’t decided which word, term or expression to use, this needs a different approach. First, try to settle on just one of these. Do you really need to use both of them? If you prefer one but still think the other should be mentioned, look for a way to include it – it could be in brackets, for example, maybe with some extra wording to clarify how it fits into the picture.
As usual, there are exceptions …
I’ve said that ‘and/or’ is an alternative to using a slash, even though it includes one itself. Does this actually make sense? I think so: in this case, the meaning of the slash is clear. The whole thing consists of only six characters, so it won’t look especially untidy or mess up the page layout, and it’s certainly better than ‘and or or’. However, ‘and/or’ isn’t ideal for readability, and it’s often used unnecessarily. Whenever you consider using it, think about whether a simple ‘and’ or ‘or’ would make the meaning clear enough; if so, I suggest you use that instead.
Here's a round-up of other exceptions in brief:
I hope this has convinced you that slashes are usually best avoided in normal sentences, although they do sometimes serve a useful function. The main aim should be to make things clear, smooth and easy for the reader, and that generally means using words instead of ungainly, often ambiguous punctuation marks such as the slash.
Editing your web content
Here’s how I can help to boost the quality and impact of the writing on your website or blog, or in web content that you create for customers.
Why would we need a web content editor?
Your organisation’s website is its ‘shop window’ to many of the people it wants to engage with.
People are notoriously fickle when they’re browsing online. They often quickly lose interest in the site they’re on, and move on to another. (Are you still here? Good!) To keep your visitor’s attention, it’s important that the written content on your site is clear, concise and readable.
Also, many search engine optimisation (SEO) experts believe that good spelling and grammar helps web pages to rank highly in search results: see here, for example.
All of the above is also true if you’re a blogger. You can make your blog stand out from others (also probably helping to boost its search engine performance) by making sure the writing is of a professional quality, easy to follow, and free of errors and inconsistencies.
Or perhaps you’re a web design agency. You might have great ideas and design skills for making your clients’ sites look good – but are you sure the writing will be in good shape?
Whichever of these roles you’re in, I can help. The main web editing services I offer are outlined below. If you have something else in mind, I’m happy to consider it, so please don’t hesitate to ask.
Editing web pages
I can improve the content of your website’s pages in various ways, according to your needs and how much scope there is for improvement:
As an extra part of the service, I can check that the links (in menus, buttons or text, for example) are working correctly.
I can do the editing or proofreading using Word or PDF documents, or in the content management system that you use. Please see the How I do it page of my website for details.
Does your site have a lot of blog posts or news items? We can discuss how to deal with these. For example, I could just edit or proofread the more recent items to begin with, and we could make an ongoing agreement for me to check future ones. Please see ‘Editing blogs’ below.
To help make sure your site’s content has a consistent style that reflects your brand image, I can also create a style guide for it. You can get the most out of this if I create it before editing or proofreading the content.
Editing downloadable content
Your site may have some documents that visitors can download as Word or PDF files. I can check these for you in the same way that I normally check documents. Please see my Business editing page for details.
Downloadable documents can easily become out of date – so, as an optional extra, I can check that yours are consistent with the information on the related web pages.
Each time you write a new blog post, I can check it for you in a Word or PDF document, or in your content management system. This would work best as an ongoing service, with invoicing at the end of each month or quarter, rather than treating each post as a new ‘project’. I can also check posts that you’ve already published.
Has your site been growing for quite a while? Maybe it’s got a bit out of hand and you think it’s time for some pruning, but you’re not sure where to start? I can help you by doing a content audit, to quantify and assess what’s on your site and suggest the next steps. I’ll give you a list of pages, organised according to your menu structure, with notes on their contents. This should help you to decide whether some of the pages should be deleted or reorganised.
I’ll also give you a report with an overall assessment of the writing, and with recommendations and quotes for what I could do for you next – please see the last three sections above for guidance on this.
Editing content that you create for your customers
If you’re a web design agency, this is the service for you. After you’ve written the content for your client’s site and before it goes live, I can edit or proofread it, at least if it’s in Word or PDF format. If it’s in a content management system or some other format, I still may be able to help – we can talk about the set-up and try to agree on a way forward.
When asking me for a quote, please give me a description of the site, a list of pages (with relevant details for each page, such as its purpose and word count), and at least a sample of the content. I’ll then assess the type of editing that’s needed, and propose a course of action as well as giving you a quote.
A final note
Please bear in mind that I specialise in words and how they’re used. I’m not an expert on web design, user experience, website performance or search engine optimisation (SEO). However, if I do find any problems when navigating your site, or if I have any observations about things like layout, structure, formatting and usability, I will report these to you and make recommendations if appropriate.
What Not to Write – parts 16 to 20
I sometimes post tips on LinkedIn about pitfalls to avoid in your writing, with the hashtag #WhatNotToWrite. And I sometimes gather the latest ones together into a blog post, like this one, which features numbers 16 to 20.
The tips are mainly geared towards business writing, and based on things I’ve noticed when editing business content, though some are also worth bearing in mind for other types of writing.
You can find the earlier compilations by following these links: 1–5, 6–10, 11–15.
1️⃣6️⃣ Don’t write ‘everyday’ as a single word if you’re saying that something happens every day
❌ We strive to get better everyday.
❌ The files are backed up everyday.
Instead, like at the end of my opening sentence, you need two words: ‘every day’.
It’s easy to make this mistake, as ‘everyday’ is an actual word – it just has a different role. It’s an adjective, with the same kind of meaning as ‘regular’ or ‘commonplace’. Also, it often doesn’t literally mean that something happens or exists every single day.
So you might mention ‘an everyday task’, ‘our everyday concerns’ or, if you’re Sly and the Family Stone, ‘everyday people’. By contrast, ‘every day’ is an adverbial phrase: it provides detail about actions rather than things.
If you’re ever unsure, imagine that you were saying something happens each week, month or year. Would you write ‘everyweek’, ‘everymonth’ or ‘everyyear’? Surely not, and the same ‘rule’ applies to ‘every day’ vs ‘everyday’. If you put your wording to this test, you can’t go wrong.
1️⃣7️⃣ Don’t put a semicolon or comma at the end of an item in a vertical list (unless you’re asked to)
This list consists of:
Why? Because these punctuation marks are pointless and just get in the way. The line breaks and bullets (or numbers, letters etc.) make it clear where each item ends and the next one begins – that’s what often makes a vertical list more useful than normal (‘run-on’) text.
Like any other pointless punctuation, these semicolons or commas would make your writing look fussy and cluttered, and your reader might find them just a bit annoying. So, why bother?
Just to complete the picture: it is usually best to have a full stop after the final item, to make it clear that this is the end of the overall sentence. Or, if each item in the list is a complete sentence, normally each one should end with a full stop.
1️⃣8️⃣ Don’t write (for example) ‘June 21’ as a shorter alternative to ‘June 2021’
Someone could easily think you mean the 21st day of June.
This format was fine from 1932 to 1999, when those last two digits couldn’t possibly have been mistaken for a day of the month. And it will become fine again in 2032, so please ignore this post if you somehow end up reading it then, or in the subsequent 67 years.
In the meantime, it would be good if you could always find the time and space to write four-figure years and avoid confusing anyone. Thanks!
1️⃣9️⃣ Don’t write ‘Ltd company’ (or even worse, ‘LTD Company’) when you’re just referring to the idea of a limited company, rather than naming a specific one
Abbreviations do have their place, but this isn’t it. They force the reader to do a bit of extra work, to translate them into complete words. They also make your writing look sloppy, and can make you look lazy.
It’s fine to use ‘Ltd’ as part of the name of a company, e.g. ‘Acme Widgets Ltd’ (although it’s usually best to leave it out, unless you need to be formal and make sure the complete name is stated). This notation is so familiar, it’s unlikely to trip up the reader or give a bad impression.
So, for example:
❌ The provider must be a Ltd company
✔ The provider must be a limited company
✔ This service is provided by Great Services Ltd of Providertown
2️⃣0️⃣ Don’t write ‘a so-and-so exists’ when you mean ‘there is a so-and-so’ or ‘someone has a so-and-so’
I often see this kind of wording in documents that I’m editing:
❌ A process exists for performing this function
❌ We will ensure that an adequate security policy exists
❌ A technology strategy does not exist for the company
I wonder whether the people who write this stuff would ever say it out loud? I doubt it, unless they actually want to get funny looks.
There’s a useful adage to follow here: ‘Write like a human.’ In almost any context, this is the way to go. It means writing things like this instead:
✔ There is a process for performing this function
✔ We will ensure that there is an adequate security policy
✔ The company does not have a technology strategy
Don’t these versions ‘sound’ more familiar and less jarring? That’s one of the keys to getting your message across smoothly. (Oh, by the way, an editor can help you with this kind of thing.)
When you come across the word ‘editor’ or ‘proofreader’, what picture comes into your mind?
Some kind of fanatical word nerd, maybe, waving a red pen around, getting their glasses steamed up at the sight of every misplaced apostrophe or split infinitive? If so, I hope you’ll think again.
We’re a misunderstood bunch. And I don’t mean that in a self-pitying way, just a mildly bemused one. Let’s tackle some of the top misconceptions about who we are, what we do and why we do it.
Myth 1: We write stuff
In the publishing world, people generally know that our work comes after the writing stage. In other walks of life, though, the distinction isn’t so well known. People often confuse us with copywriters, for example, perhaps partly because we’re sometimes known as copy-editors.
Let’s clear this up, then. Editors and proofreaders work with stuff that has already been written. Some do also offer writing services, such as copywriting or technical writing – but these are separate services, needing different skills and expertise. Please don’t assume we can do that kind of work unless we say so.
Myth 2: We only work for publishers
It’s true that we’re traditionally linked to the publishing business, and this is largely where our working practices and standards were formulated. But we also do a great deal of work for other types of customer: businesses (other than the publishing type), public sector organisations, self-publishing authors, researchers and so on.
There are respected editing and proofreading veterans out there who’ve never done a minute’s work for a publisher – there’s so much else that we can help with apart from books and academic journals. If something consists of written words and needs to be up to a good standard, we can lend a hand.
Myth 3: We just fix the odd typo here and there
If only it were that simple. Well, come to think of it, that could get boring. Proofreading is essentially about correcting errors and inconsistencies, but even this goes well beyond looking for typing errors. There are also flaws in spelling, grammar, punctuation, referencing, editorial style, formatting and layout to be spotted and ironed out.
When we’re editing (or copy-editing) rather than proofreading, we go further. The exact scope varies from one job to the next, according to what’s needed – but it usually includes improving the clarity, readability and flow of the writing, making sure it’s suited to its purpose and the people who will read it, and checking for factual consistency.
Myth 4: We're pedants/sticklers
Who would pay for that? This is a job – we’re providing a professional service. Nobody ever says, ‘We’re looking for someone to be pedantic about a 10,000-word report – how much would you charge for this?’
We don’t alter text just for the sake of following rules. We do it to improve people’s writing – to make it more effective, more powerful, more professional.
In a way, some of us are actually anti-pedantic. We encourage people to ignore zombie rules, and to see the English language as a fluid, ever-evolving thing that’s really based more on conventions than on cast-iron rules.
On a similar note, our work is occasionally described as ‘a bit OCD’. Please don’t do this. As well as misrepresenting what we’re about, it trivialises a real illness that scars people’s lives. I’ll leave the rest to my colleague Denise Cowle.
Myth 5: We get annoyed by errors
If this were true, we’d be living pretty miserable lives. We might come across literally hundreds of the things in a single day, and can’t really afford to get worked up about them.
I reckon most of us have become immune to those fits of anger that some people suffer when they see a spelling or grammatical mistake. We even stay fairly calm at the sight of a ‘should of’, or a ‘your’ that should be a ‘you’re’. It’s all in a day’s work, many times over.
Myth 6: We’re the grammar police
A few years ago, I got into a bit of hot water on an editors’ page on Facebook. It had been flooded with posts that were basically saying ‘Ooh, look at this spelling mistake I’ve found – isn’t it terrible?’, drowning out the more interesting and helpful ones. I posted my objection to this – not worded as nicely as it could have been, but far from being insulting or abusive – and all hell broke loose (well, at least by editor standards).
I was surprised by the vehemence of those who criticised my comments. Then again, if I remember correctly, the post attracted 85 ‘likes’. I reckon most of the people who reacted to it were on my side. And I wonder how many of the peevers – and their defenders – were actual editors or proofreaders, rather than petty pedants who just saw that page as a good platform for indulging in their error-shaming habit.
I feel confident in saying that very few professional editors and proofreaders do this kind of thing. We spot errors because it’s part of our job – it isn’t a hobby.
And the next time you hear about some zealot purging Wikipedia of an expression they disapprove of, or removing spurious apostrophes from signs, please don’t think of us.
Myth 7: We love reading/literature
This is true of some editors, especially those who specialise in fiction. And I’m sure this gives them some useful insight, helping them to advise their authors and enhance their manuscripts. Many of us don’t work with that kind of material, though.
It’s confession time. I’ve never read anything by Charles Dickens. Or Jane Austen. The only Shakespeare play I’ve read is the one we had to read at school. I could go on, but you probably get the idea.
Now, I do enjoy reading. But it isn’t the biggest thing in my life, and I rarely read fiction or anything that could really be described as ‘literary’. And this isn’t a problem, work-wise, because that isn’t the kind of writing that I edit. I work on things like business reports, marketing content and non-fiction books. Horses for courses and all that.
Myth 8: You don’t need us any more
Who needs an editor or proofreader when there are spell checkers (or, er, Editor, as the one in Microsoft Word is now unhelpfully called), Grammarly and other automated alternatives?
It’s true that various software tools can help with improving text. Many of us use some of them ourselves, to make our work more reliable and efficient. Artificial intelligence is opening up new possibilities. But I still believe that it takes a human mind to assess writing effectively, and to make the right changes where needed – so that it’ll work well for the humans who’ll read it in the end, and for those who want them to read it. We’re not done yet.
On LinkedIn, I sometimes post tips on pitfalls to avoid in your writing, as a series of posts with the hashtag #WhatNotToWrite. Here comes a round-up of numbers 11 to 15 in the series.
The tips are mainly geared towards business writing, and are largely based on things I’ve noticed when editing business content – but some are worth bearing in mind when doing other types of writing as well.
The earlier posts were compiled into these blog articles:
1️⃣1️⃣ Unless there’s a very good reason, don’t use the phrase ‘in place’ in this kind of thing:
❌ The company has a diversity policy in place.
❌ The company will put a diversity policy in place.
It’s abstract wording: the word ‘place’ doesn’t refer to an actual place. And abstract wording isn’t good for keeping your reader’s attention.
In the first example, it’s just pointless verbiage. Where else could the policy be, other than ‘in place’? It’s hardly likely to be floating above the clouds or buried underground. OK, so there might be a policy in draft form, not yet ‘live’ – but if that were the case, surely you’d say so. You can just leave out the ‘in place’, with no loss of meaning:
✅ The company has a diversity policy.
In the second case, you can’t just delete ‘in place’, as the verb ‘put’ would be left dangling in mid-air. But that’s abstract as well – there’s no actual ‘putting’ going on. Better to use a concrete, single-word verb, like this:
✅ The company will introduce a diversity policy.
As usual: keep it simple, stoopid! (I’m not calling you stoopid – it’s just an expression, stoopid.)
On LinkedIn: sorry, gone missing!
1️⃣2️⃣ Don’t refer to your organisation’s website as ‘our official website’ unless you’re sure there’s a good reason for it.
Let’s face it, unless you happen to be, say, a professional football club or the provider of a hugely popular product, it’s pretty unlikely that anyone will have set up an unofficial site about your organisation or product. Even if they had done, you probably wouldn’t mention it in your communications. And even if you did, surely you wouldn’t use the word ‘our’, as it wouldn’t be yours. So, ‘our website’ will do just fine.
This kind of thing can make you seem self-important, even though you might not be. And, like many other things I’ve discouraged in these posts, the word ‘official’ in this context is just needless clutter, giving your reader extra work to do. You have been officially warned 😏
1️⃣3️⃣ In business writing, don’t write ‘3rd party’ (unless you’re having to follow some strange style guide that tells you to).
It looks amateurish, and yet people keep doing it. The figure ‘3’ will ‘jump off the page’, distracting your reader and grabbing more attention than it warrants.
If you want to come across as professional and businesslike, it’s better to write ‘third party’, which will make for smoother reading.
This is part of a wider editorial style issue about when to write numbers using numerals and when to use words instead, which is too big a subject for a mere post like this …
1️⃣4️⃣ In your business writing, don’t use the ampersand symbol (‘&’) without a good reason.
⚠ It will make your writing look sloppy, untidy and disjointed.
⚠ Like other large characters, it ‘jumps off the page’, and this can be distracting.
⚠ It can make you look lazy, maybe even suggesting a certain disdain for the reader (‘I can’t be bothered to write “and”, so you’ll have to make do with this’). Even if neither of these things is true, it’s the perception that counts.
Using the word ‘and’ will hardly take any more time and effort anyway: it only needs one more keystroke.
As usual, there are exceptions. Here are some situations where it makes sense to use the ampersand:
✅ In official names of companies, brands etc. that do include it, such as ‘Ernst & Young’ and ‘Procter & Gamble’.
✅ In well-known terms such as ‘M&A’ and ‘P&L’, and in lesser-known similar terms that you expect your readers to understand.
✅ In things like tables and charts, if space is very limited.
1️⃣5️⃣ If you’re inviting your customers or prospects to take a quick look at something, don’t suggest that they take a ‘sneak peak’ – not with that spelling, anyway.
People often use this expression in social media and other places online, but they very often spell the second word wrongly: it should be ‘peek’. A ‘peak’ is the highest point of something, like a mountain peak, or the peak of your career. A ‘peek’ is a quick look.
It’s easy to get this wrong because of the ‘eak’ in ‘sneak’ – it just seems obvious that the next word should follow suit, but that isn’t the case.
Now you can be one of the special few who get it right. ✅
One of the things that we editors and proofreaders pay attention to is the use of capital letters. But does this really matter? Are we just being pedantic?
Let’s look at how capitals are normally used, how they’re often misused, and what difference it actually makes.
When to use capitals
Here’s a round-up of the main types of words that should be capitalised (in other words, they should start with a capital) if we follow normal conventions. It isn’t meant to include every possibility; for something more complete, you can turn to an authority on editorial style, such as New Hart’s Rules, Butcher’s Copy-editing or the Chicago Manual of Style.
We usually should capitalise:
Where it often goes wrong
In informal writing, words that should be capitalised frequently aren’t. But – honestly – we editors and proofreaders are not the grammar police (or even the Grammar Police), and that kind of writing isn’t really our concern.
In material that’s written for business or public information purposes, I’ve found that the more common problem is overuse of capitals.
Here are some things that people often capitalise needlessly, with examples:
I looked at some of the likely reasons behind this in an earlier post, ‘Writing tips: Hypercapitalisation – why do we do it?’
The inevitable ‘it depends’ part
As with many aspects of written English, there are grey areas. This is where style choices and context come into play. Here are a few of them (a competent editor can help you with the rest, and with the details):
In these cases, consistency is key, along with thinking about how formal the writing should be and who it’s aimed at. Here’s my recommended rule of thumb: if you’re in doubt after giving it due consideration, use lower case. Also, don’t use capitals as a way of trying to impress the reader – it might well have the opposite effect ...
Why it matters
Capitals stand out. This is basically why we use them: to signify the start of a sentence, to distinguish someone’s name from the ‘ordinary’ words around it, and so on.
The downside of this is that they’re obtrusive. They divert the reader’s attention away from other letters, clutter up the page and disrupt the flow of the text.
Imagine your reader’s reading experience as a car journey. When they reach the end of it, you hope they will have absorbed your message and will be ready to do what you want them to. Each capital letter will be a bump in the road, making the journey less smooth than you’d like it to be. Or, as Jakki Bendell puts it in ‘The Seven Deadly Writing Sins’ on the ICE Training website, a cluster of capitals in nearby words can look ‘like a row of telegraph poles’.
Unnecessary capitals can also have a jarring effect on the reader, and make the writing look pompous, self-important and not particularly professional.
Unexpected lower-case letters can be distracting as well. If a reader comes across something like ‘the duke of Cambridge’, they might pause for a moment and wonder whether that should be ‘Duke’. Some style guides do recommend this kind of usage, but there’s a risk that some readers will find it amateurish. (Back on the driving analogy for a moment: let’s think of this as a pothole.)
Finally, as well as making the reader pause awkwardly and wonder about the writer’s or organisation’s credibility, either type of mistake can cause genuine confusion. For example, ‘Office software’ seems to mean the Microsoft suite that includes Word and Excel, whereas ‘office software’ looks like a more general reference to software that’s used for office work.
So, I hope I’ve convinced you that capitalisation choices do make a difference, and that it’s worth getting your writing thoroughly checked to make sure those choices have been made wisely. That will help your readers to focus on what you’re saying rather than how you’re saying it – this, I think, is largely what editing is about.
If you’ve used a freelance editor or proofreader* to help improve something you’ve written, how can you assess the quality and professionalism of their work?
(* As in my previous post: to keep things simple, I’ll just use the words ‘editor’, ‘editing’ etc., even though the actual work might be proofreading.)
You may not have the time or the expertise to check every detail of what the editor has done (and not done), but there are still some key points that you can consider. Some of these arise before or during the job, but I’ll be mainly focusing on what you should get back from the editor at the end.
If you want help with finding an editor in the first place, here’s an earlier article about this.
A lot depends on what type of customer you are. Publishing companies usually know what to expect from us, as editorial work is an integral part of their business. Self-publishing authors often aren’t so sure, but this isn’t really my area. So, this article’s main emphasis is on the needs of non-publishing customers, such as businesses and public-sector organisations.
I don’t want to be overly prescriptive, as there are different ways to produce good results – but I hope this will be useful as a general guide to what you should look for. For a more detailed breakdown of what an editor should do, you could take a look at the relevant parts of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading’s code of practice.
At all stages, you should expect the editor to behave as a professional service provider – not as a hobbyist or someone who ‘just does a bit of proofreading’. Now let’s go into detail.
Before the job
Both you and your editor should make sure you have a clear agreement on:
This is all part of the process of getting a quote to begin with, as explained in my previous blog post.
During the job
While the work is in progress, the editor should:
First of all, the editor should have stuck to your agreement on the scope of work, level of editing, methods to be used, editorial style and so on.
You should find that the resulting text makes sense, at the very least. If appropriate, depending on the level of editing that you agreed on, it also should make for smooth, easy reading, with a professional ‘look and feel’.
If you think the editor has missed or created an error, it’s worth considering whether it really is an error. Some things that some people regard as errors are actually just style choices, such as splitting an infinitive, or using ‘they’ in the singular sense. If you’re unsure, you can ask the editor for clarification, or do some research into the current conventions and common usage.
It helps if the editor draws your attention to any style decisions that might be contentious, using either comments in the document or a style sheet. Also, they should have ensured consistency in these matters. However, some variations that look like inconsistencies to a non-editorial eye might be perfectly valid. For example, it’s normal practice to use a hyphen in ‘a long-term plan’, but not in ‘for the long term’ (as explained on The Editor's Blog).
If the editor has been working on a Word document and using Track Changes, their use of change tracking should be sensible and suited to your needs: neither too little nor too much. Any minor, indisputable changes, such as eliminating double spaces or fixing obvious typos, shouldn’t be tracked unless it’s been agreed that you need to see all changes. On the other hand, any changes that you might need to check, or at least be aware of, should be tracked.
The editor should have provided notes and queries where appropriate, expressing them in a clear, concise and helpful way.
Any changes that could significantly alter the meaning of the text should be brought to your attention, with notes to explain them and/or queries to ask for your confirmation. This also applies to facts, and to the spelling of the names of people, organisations, products, places and so on.
The editor should have taken account of the nature, purpose and tone of your written material, and its target readers. For example, if it’s aimed at readers from a wide range of educational and work backgrounds, the editor shouldn’t have introduced specialist terms or complicated wording.
Where appropriate, your editor should have considered how their changes could affect things like the length, layout and appearance of the material. It isn’t all about words – we should think about the overall finished product.
Finally, the editor shouldn’t have made rash assumptions about your level of expertise in Word, Adobe Acrobat or whatever software you’ll be using to review and follow up on their work. Because we know how to use things like Track Changes and comments in Word, or the Adobe Acrobat commenting tools, we can easily make the mistake of assuming you know as much about them as we do. We should avoid falling into this trap, and be ready to help you.
Helping us to help you
Having said all this, please allow for the occasional slip-up by your editor – we’re only human.
Whether or not you think your editor has got everything right, it’s always helpful if you give them some feedback after reviewing their work. We should never take it for granted that we’ve got it all worked out, and we should remember that every customer has different needs. And if you’re thinking of hiring the same editor again in the future, this feedback just might benefit you as well, by helping the editor to get a better understanding of what you need.
Have I missed something? If there’s anything else that you expect from an editor, get in touch and let me know.
If you hire a freelancer to edit or proofread your written work, how much will they charge?
There’s no simple answer, but there are some things you can do to help make sure you’ll get meaningful quotes. Otherwise, you may get quotes that are higher than they need to be (which means you’ll either overpay, or turn down a suitable editor who could have done the job for less). Or you may run into problems later, as it turns out that your chosen editor has badly underestimated the amount of work needed.
Here are some pointers to guide you on your way.
By the way, if you’re looking for tips on finding a suitable editor or proofreader in the first place, here's an article I wrote about this a while ago.
One of the basic things to agree on is whether you’ll be charged a fixed fee or an hourly rate. Even with a fixed fee, the editor* will probably estimate the number of hours the work will take and multiply this by the hourly rate they want. So, either way, the level of hourly payment that each editor is looking for will be a factor.
(* To keep things simple, I’ll just use the words ‘editor’, ‘editing’ etc., even though the actual work might be proofreading.)
You’ll also need to give the editor some information to help them gauge how long it will take to do the work. If the fee is going to be a fixed one, this will obviously help to determine it. Even if you’re going to pay by the hour, a rough work estimate will give you some idea of how much you’ll pay and how soon the work can be completed. It’ll also help the editor to judge whether they can fit the job into their schedule. (Yes, I know, some of this is obvious – but I couldn’t really leave it out.) Your own scheduling requirements also might affect the fee or rate that the editor will quote.
Now let’s look at this in detail.
Fixed fee or hourly rate
Which is it to be? If the scope of the work is fairly clear, a fixed fee is probably in the best interests of both parties, as you’ll know how much money will change hands from the outset.
But if there’s some doubt about how much material needs to be edited, an hourly rate might be more sensible. You could try to agree on a limit to the number of hours, and what should happen if, later on, this doesn’t look like being enough for the agreed scope of work.
Or, if you’re expecting to give your editor a regular stream of small jobs, agreeing on a fee for each job might mean you’ll both spend too much time discussing quotes (perhaps sometimes delaying the work); and then there’s all the extra invoicing, record-keeping and other paperwork. So, in these cases, using an hourly rate with monthly or quarterly invoicing may be more efficient all round.
How much per hour?
There is no standard rate. Each editor will have their own desired rate in mind, or perhaps a range of rates for different types of work. A lot will depend on their levels of experience and expertise. The UK-based Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) publishes a set of suggested minimum rates, but the words ‘suggested’ and ‘minimum’ are both important here.
Helping the editor to estimate the work needed
Different editors will have different questions to ask, according to the types of work they offer and how they prefer to produce estimates. For example, a fiction editor might want to know which genre your novel fits into. I don’t edit fiction, but I think the factors that I’m about to describe are fairly typical.
Crucially, you and the editor both need to have a clear understanding of the type of service that the editor will provide: for example, development editing, copy-editing, plain English editing or proofreading. Some of these terms aren’t commonly understood and are open to interpretation, and you’ll need to make sure you agree on exactly what the editor will do. This will influence how long the work will take; and, as mentioned already, it might affect the hourly rate.
As you might expect, the length of the material to be edited is a key factor. If possible, you should tell the editor how many words there will be, at least roughly. A page count isn’t normally very useful by itself, as the editor won’t know how many words an average page will have (and if you do know that, you can calculate the overall word count yourself).
Although an approximate word count will do, it should be a genuine estimate based on facts, rather than just a ‘finger in the air’ educated guess. Make sure it includes all the types of content that will need to be edited, not just the main text. If you’re developing the content in Word, it’s easy to see the current word count in your document, or each of your documents. Even if you’re still working on it when you’re looking for a quote, it makes sense to estimate carefully what the final count will be.
If you’re looking for someone to edit the written content of your website, getting a word count isn’t straightforward and can take a while. You may well need to create a list of pages (most likely using Excel), then copy the content of each page into Word in turn so that you can see how many words it has, and finally add these counts together. This list will be helpful for the prospective editors you get in touch with, though, especially if it includes the web address of each page.
As well as the length of the main text, other types of content can affect the amount of work needed, such as tables, illustrations, notes and references, if they need to be cross-checked with the main text and perhaps with each other. Make sure you tell the editor about these (if you want them to be checked, which is usually wise), and say roughly how many of each will be included. Also, if there are a lot of headings, especially with multiple levels, this will add to the complexity, as will frequent cross-referencing.
The type of material also makes a difference, along with its purpose and the target audience. For example, complex technical material generally takes longer to edit, per word, than something that’s been written in simple language for a wide readership.
If you need to the editor to follow a particular style guide, they’ll need to spend some time reading it, absorbing it and possibly changing their settings in some editorial software to reflect it. The more complex (and/or quirky) it is, the longer it will take to do the actual editing, because the editor will often need to pause and check that the text complies with it. On the other hand, a good style guide might save time, as the editor won’t need to spend so much time trying to work out your style preferences and, potentially, raising queries about them.
The format of the document (usually Word or PDF), and how it should be edited or marked up, usually won’t have a huge impact on the size of the job – at least if you don’t need anything out of the ordinary. But this will need to be agreed in advance anyway, and the editor is likely to bear it in mind when estimating the effort needed.
It’s also helpful to agree in advance on whether you’ll want the editor to do any follow-up work after the initial edit – for example, to help with resolving their queries after you’ve answered them. If so, and if you’re going to be charged a fixed fee, an estimate of this work could be factored into the quoted fee; or you could agree that it won’t be included in that fee, but will be billed additionally at an hourly rate.
Finally, but crucially, you usually should provide a sample of the content if you possibly can. This needs to be long enough to give the editor a useful impression of what the complete document will be like, particularly the style and quality of writing – perhaps something like 1,000 words. The sample also needs to be typical of the overall content, in terms of the type of language used and how carefully it’s been written and checked. However, a sample might not be necessary if the editor has worked on similar material for you before.
Urgency and timing
Some editors charge a premium for an urgent job. (Some might call it a ‘rush job’, but that might make you worry about how carefully they’ll do it.) Also, if your timeframe requires the editor to do some of the work at the weekend, on a public holiday or in the evening, they may well charge extra for that portion of it.
This might seem like a lot of information to give to your potential editors, but it’s worth the effort to help make sure you’ll get realistic quotes.
Rather than scrambling for answers each time an editor asks you these questions, why not prepare those answers before you start looking for quotes? You could save time by including this information in your initial query – it’ll be a good way to get a potential working relationship off to a smooth start.
Why use short words?
In guidelines for ensuring plain, readable English, we’re often advised to prefer simple words. This mostly means preferring shorter words to longer ones, although we shouldn’t take this as an absolute rule. The words also should be well known to our readers. As Ernest Gowers put it in The Complete Plain Words, ‘If the choice is between two words that convey the writer’s meaning equally well, one short and familiar and the other long and unusual, of course the short and familiar should be preferred.’
What makes them short?
But what do we mean by ‘short’ words? In written language, the most obvious measure is the number of letters. However, the number of syllables also makes a difference to readability – perhaps even more so.
On average, of course, the more letters a word has, the more syllables it has; but there are glaring exceptions. For example, let’s compare two words with similar meanings: area and zone. Both are nice and compact on the page, with just four letters – but area has three syllables, compared with just one in zone. Which is more plain? You could argue that area wins the day because it’s more familiar, but it’s a close call.
Here’s a pair of related words with an even bigger contrast: ideas and thoughts. The first word, again, has three times as many syllables as the second, but it has barely half as many letters. And then there’s myopia, which manages to pack four syllables into its six letters – just as many as the much more space-consuming (but better-known) alternative short-sightedness.
Why the syllable count matters
When we’re reading, most of us ‘say’ the words in our head. The more syllables there are in your writing, the more work your reader will need to do. If there are too many, it will take a long time for them to work through a sentence, and they might struggle to keep a handle on its overall meaning.
This, of course, is also an argument for keeping sentences short as well as words. In his Oxford Guide to Plain English, Martin Cutts warns that avoiding multisyllabic words isn’t always a good move, as it often means using more words. But if the syllable count per word is just one of the factors you look at, along with the word count per sentence, you will be dealing with that potential problem. Another useful measure is the number of syllables per sentence, which takes care of both of these factors to some extent.
Also, if there are too many single-syllable words, writing can seem monotonous and lacking in ‘colour’, with a staccato effect that might annoy the reader. A lot depends on the type of content and its target readership. For informational material aimed at a wide audience, some studies and guidelines suggest that an average of around 1.5 syllables per word is a good compromise between keeping it plain and keeping the reader awake.
The length of a word, whether in terms of letters or syllables, isn’t the only thing that can affect its readability. If it has a cluster of consonants that are all pronounced individually – for example, in instigate, altruism or obstruct – this will slow the reader down as they read the text ‘out loud’ in their head. (This isn’t a problem in a word such as nightshirt – although it has five consonants in a row, they only make two sounds.)
Even where there’s only a pair of consonants, they might not go well together pronunciation-wise. This can have a slight jarring effect for the reader: for example, subpart and enmity.
It’s interesting that the best-known readability tests are based on words per sentence and syllables per word, taking no account of the number of letters. Along with the average word count per sentence, the Flesch Reading Ease and Flesch–Kincaid Grade Level measures both use the average syllable count per word, while the Gunning Fog Index checks the percentage of ‘complex’ words. (A ‘complex’ word is defined as one with three or more syllables, excluding proper nouns, familiar jargon and compound terms. Common suffixes such as ‘-ed’ and ‘-ing’ aren’t included in the syllable count.)
These measures are only of limited value, especially as they take no account of what the words mean. But perhaps their emphasis on counting syllables is one of their strengths.
There’s no magic wand that can ensure writing is plain and readable – a lot of factors come into play. But if you’re careful about how many syllables your words have, this will clearly help to make things go smoothly. It’s just one way of doing something that writers and editors should always do: thinking about the reader.
Thoughts on Words
An editorial blog. Posts by Graham Hughes.