Event Review: A Matter of Style

Written by Eric Damer; copy edited by Karen Barry

Review of seminar Stylistic Editing: Beyond the Basics with Nancy Flight (offered by Editors BC on October 31, 2015)

When the manuscript you’re editing has sound structure, good grammar, and perfect punctuation, is there anything left to fix? If the manuscript remains awkward, dull, or confusing, then perhaps it is time for some stylistic editing. Our “Halloween” workshop on October 31 with Nancy Flight explored ways to “clarify meaning, improve flow, and smooth language.”

Participants in the workshop reviewed basic elements of stylistic editing, beginning with word choice and sentence clarity. We discussed the evils of unnecessary words and phrases, overused adjectives and adverbs, weak and passive verbs, inconsistent phrase structures within a sentence, and nouns created from verbs and adjectives (nominalization). We then considered good sentence and paragraph flow, often achieved by placing familiar, less important information at the beginning of the sentence or paragraph and by using transitional phrases. Finally, we considered what it means to “smooth” language through consistent tone, style, and level of authority. Nancy gave short presentations on the various topics before providing us with a variety of practical exercises to do, sometimes informally as a group and sometimes more formally on our own with handouts. Some of the exercises were simple but awkward sentences in need of tidying, but others were real-life paragraphs that required considerable work to clarify meaning and improve overall readability.

I suspect that most of the concepts of stylistic editing were familiar to participants—all experienced editors—but when called upon to improve sample passages, it was interesting to see that we each invariably made different suggestions. The rules, it seemed, were much easier to state than to practice uniformly. We had great discussions about whether a suggested edit preserved the original meaning, whether one or another option improved a passage better, and even when to stop editing to respect the author’s voice. In stylistic editing, we soon realized that there is no single right answer—which makes stylistic editing a very interesting process!

This workshop topic was meant to help people prepare for the upcoming Editors Canada certification exam. Whether participants were planning to write the exams or not, the day flew by quickly with lots of good practice and opportunities to peer into the minds of colleagues, if only briefly. For those of us who generally work on our own, this type of meeting in person and learning as a group can be an important part of professional development. As one person suggested at the end of the day, the formal learning organized by the presenter was helpful, but so too was the informal learning we created through our interactions with each other.

Eric Damer is a historian, author, editor, and sometime blacksmith.

Karen Barry is launching into freelance editing and is currently enrolled in SFU’s Editing Certificate program. She has a background in biology and over 15 years’ experience writing and editing research papers, technical reports, grant proposals, and promotional and educational materials.

Image by Shutterstock

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