Why businesses need editors: it’s in the details

    Editors like to say that their work is invisible. An editor should leave things better than they were before, and no one should know they were there. Because that is true, most people don’t really know what editors do, or where they work. I would guess that the general public thinks of an editor as someone who works at a publishing house, or at a news publication – and indeed you will find editors in those places.

    But wherever there is the written word, there is the need for a second eye, an editor who checks what has been written and applies a particular set of skills. Don’t believe me? Dear reader, I will now demonstrate.


    A local supermarket in my Cape Town suburb has a sign above the area where you find bread, cake and pastries which says “Confectionary”. It was put up two years ago as part of an extensive and expensive revamp.

    sign with word confectionery spelled wrong

    The wrong signal?

    It does the job – it tells you from across the shop where to find your sugar fix.

    But here’s the thing: that’s not how you spell the word, and it is dubious whether it describes breads and cakes at all. It should be spelled Confectionery, which, strictly speaking, refers to sweets and chocolates. There is a United States reference that says pastries are included in the definition. Confectionary is either not recognised as a word at all (in my premium version of the Oxford English Dictionary), or it means the place where confections are created, or it is an adjective. What would I have recommended? The word Bakery, which accurately describes that part of the shop.


    I belong to a closed Facebook group in which editors commiserate with each other about their jobs, and sometimes share instances where they wish an editor had been employed. (An aside: There’s not a sense of laughing at other people’s mistakes – rather there’s irritation and outrage and a desire to have seen the thing fixed.) A member recently shared photo of a web page for UK bistro, which was enticing people to join its Loyatly programme. The page in question has been amended, but here’s the evidence:

    Loyalty spelled wrong

    Picture used with permission.



    Infected by the editor in its midst, our family scrutinises the flyers that drop in our postbox and rates them by the number of mistakes. This one arrived recently, prompting speculation as to what precisely a dump wall is:

    Postbox flyer

    Postbox flyer


    There’s an argument to be made that in the grander scheme of things these things don’t really matter. The shoppers or potential customers understand what is meant, and no harm is done.

    So why not leave things as they are?

    You could, but I think that from a business point of view there’s a reason not to make small mistakes like this. In all three examples above, good money was spent on producing branding material of one kind or another. And it was spent on something that was not quite as good as it could have been.

    And at least some of a business’s customers will spot an error and possibly dismiss that business as one which does not pay attention to detail, or which was too cheap to get it done properly. In today’s competitive world that’s not what any business wants.


    That local supermarket has a core business, which is to sell goods to customers. They are not expected to understand the finer points of a word like confectionery. But if they had employed a professional editor, they would not, two years later, still have sub-standard branding in their shop.

    Error-free signage, brochures and promotional materials are a matter of hygiene: no one will notice if you get it right, but some people will notice if you get it wrong. That matters. The cost of having a professional editor look over your material is negligible when compared with the cost of printing the brochure, or having the sign made.

    Don’t be afraid. No one likes having mistakes pointed out. But a professional editor will not make you feel small: they will be glad to have been asked, they will make your words beautiful and they will be discreet.

    Editors rule, OK?

    PS It is possible that you will find mistakes in this article! Editors make mistakes too. Please let me know, either in the comments below or via my Contact Page.

    A strategy for working with house style guides

    Two style guide books

    Two style guides with which I have grappled: the Cape Times Style Book is the 1974 edition, while Do It In Style dates from 1995.

    The Associated Press has cast a very big stone among the editing pigeons: they have changed their style and now say that “more than” and “over” can both be used to indicate a greater numerical value. This probably passed most of the world by, but in the editing world it is a very big deal (read more on that from the inimitable Grammar Girl).

    The reason editors have their knickers in knots is that AP is the custodian of the one of the most influential style guides on the planet. Many US publications use their guide, and when they change the rules it is taken very, very seriously.
    Continue reading

    Twitter’s 280-characters just too many? Here’s a way to cope…

    Twitter logo

    Twitter logo: Picture: Pixabay

    I am in two minds about Twitter’s decision to allow 280-character tweets.
    One the one hand, when only 140 characters were allowed, I often felt that I could do with just an extra few characters to get in an extra hashtag, or a telling phrase.

    And I think that the imposed brevity meant people often substituted a short hashtag for actual meaning, as seen here:

    Looking for inspiration during #NaNoWriMo2017? These classic authors have you covered.

    What is #NaNoWriMo2017 anyway? Turns out it is National Novel Writing Month. That tweet would be better like this:

    Looking for inspiration during National Novel Writing Month? These classic authors have you covered. #NaNoWriMo2017

    The extra characters which Twitter now allows mean that it is now possible to put in just a little extra background, where needed, without resorting to mysterious and irritating hashtags.

    Continue reading

    Curation: How to find shareable content for your readers

    I have a Safe Hands Facebook page on which I share my own writing, as and when I do any writing. I also use it to share links about topics that interest me: editing, writing, journalism, business models for journalism, health and so on. I try to share one article a day on Facebook, and another on Twitter as part of promoting my business.

    All this takes some time so I was gratified when a friend recently thanked me for the links, calling them: “Curation at its best.”

    Which made me think that it might be useful to write a little about curation, and to share where I find my links. Continue reading

    Five different kinds of editing

    I’ve been editing things for a very long time now, and long ago stopped thinking consciously about any of it.

    But an upcoming workshop I will be offering at Cape Town’s Bergvliet High School on how to edit your own writing meant that I had to go back to basics and deconstruct a little.

    It occurred to me that the list I made for that workshop, looking at what I see as the different kinds of editing might be useful to writers and people who are starting out as editors, so here it is (with examples where needed):

    Proofreading – correcting basic errors like spelling, grammar, formatting and applying house style


    This sentence has a grammar mistake:

    Other musicians followed, though their music didn’t reach as bigger an audience as they would have liked.

    Corrected to:

    Other musicians followed, though their music didn’t reach as big an audience as they would have liked. Continue reading

    What it means to be a copy editor

    Marooned boat in a drought

    The worst drought in living memory? Picture: Luis Paredes, freeimages.com

    Copy editors have many things to worry about (think commas). And making sure that language is used with precision is one of those things.
    In a recent a television programme, the presenter said that a particular place was experiencing the wettest winter “in living memory”.
    Since such declarations about the weather happen often, and because there is, these days, always a hidden sub-text about how the observed phenomenon proves or disproves climate change theory, I started to ponder: what does “living memory” mean exactly?
    The online Collins Dictionary says:

    “If you say that something is, for example, the best, worst, or first thing of its kind in living memory, you are emphasizing that it is the only thing of that kind that people can remember.”

    But which people? To a ten-year-old child, memory only goes back seven or eight years to when he or she is two or three. And for someone who has reached the age of 90, memory goes back many decades.
    Continue reading

    Why I am a grammar cheerleader

    The Twitter list I have for people who post about editing and grammar this morning alerted me to the fact that the United States celebrates March 4 as National Grammar Day. Grammarly, in particular, is very excited:

    Though I don’t really hold with awareness days, my Friday morning thoughts meandered to grammar, and why it has such a bad reputation (even though Grammarly is working so hard to make it sexy).

    When I was at school, South African education was going through a phase when children were not taught formal grammar. The only reason I know anything about grammar is because I did Latin in high school. My son, who has spent much of his primary school career being taught about things like subjunctive tenses and gerunds, would probably envy my school career. There’s no way round it, grammar as taught in school can be dead boring. And once you’ve made it out of school, there’s always the awful chance you may encounter someone who corrects your grammar for you, as you speak. For most people, the mere thought of grammar is a complete turn-off.

    Speech bubbles

    Because grammar rules (and “rules”) are often used by those “in the know” as a cudgel to shame people or shut out voices, a lot of people have a negative perception of grammar. Picture: ilker, freeimages.com

    But grammar is important. My job for many years consisted of editing the writing of others, and that sometimes involved correcting their grammar. They didn’t like it – but in the end, good relationships were forged around a central understanding: writers and editors are working together towards articles and books that communicate with clarity and elegance and beauty.

    And grammar (in any language) is the bedrock on which communication is founded.
    An interview by Andy Bechtel with Lisa McLendon, co-ordinator of the Bremner Editing Center at the University of Kansas and author of “The Perfect English Grammar Workbook: Simple Rules and Quizzes to Master Today’s English”, expresses this very clearly:

    Q. In the book, you write that you prefer “grammar cheerleader” over “grammar cop.” What do you make of debates over grammar on social media and elsewhere?
    A. I’m glad people are talking about language. Healthy debate is good, and anytime people (myself included) can learn more about language and how it works, it’s a good thing. Anytime people think about making writing more clear and accurate, it’s a good thing. Because grammar rules (and “rules”) are often used by those “in the know” as a cudgel to shame people or shut out voices, a lot of people have a negative perception of grammar. That’s why it needs a cheerleader instead of a cop.
    But like it or not, we DO get judged by our language, especially online, where the vast majority of communication is written, and often that judgment will override any information someone is trying to convey or point someone is trying to make. Understanding grammar can help someone gain credibility and write authoritatively.

    So tomorrow, March 4, I will be raising a glass to grammar and to being a grammar cheerleader.