Self-help writing tutorials:
- Exercises in weeding out fluff from article text
- Advanced editing exercises
- Spot the ambiguity
- Build your linking skills
- Using hyphens and dashes
- Copy-editing essentials, part of the Military History Academy
This article is aimed at both native and non-native speakers of English. Although each group faces different challenges in writing and editing English, most issues we cover are relevant to many languages. External links that may help you to improve your writing and editing are at the end of the article.
Though most criteria for good writing in English are widely accepted, advocates may differ on particular technical and stylistic matters. Please take this into account here: some of our advice and suggested solutions may be debatable. Feedback on how to improve the article is welcome at the talkpage.
Becoming close to a text is unavoidable if you work intensively on it; ironically, this closeness can reduce your ability to critically review the text. Editing a text as a stranger to it has distinct advantages—mainly the ability to approach it with fresh eyes, uninhibited by the intricacies of creating it in the first place.
You can achieve strategic distance from your own text by using techniques that allow you to see it afresh; that is, more like the way your readers will see it. These techniques involve the editing process, the passage of time, and the visual appearance of the text. If you're using the edit-box on a wiki, the Show preview button at the bottom displays your work as it will appear to readers. The difference between edit and preview modes can distance you from the writing or editing process, highlighting errors and areas that can be improved. More generally, here are five suggestions for achieving strategic distance:
To further increase the benefit, choose sections or articles that present you with different challenges; for example, one text that is relatively easy, requiring more low-level, clerical activities, and another that requires higher-level conceptual precision.
Some of these methods improve our productivity because, ironically, they break the normal mechanisms that our brains use to swap scrutiny for speed while reading and writing. Two such mechanisms are:
These mechanisms enable you to raed tihs txet wtihuot mcuh torulbe at all, by cmboinng waht you see on the pgae wtih the fmailair, prcdeitalbe prtteans taht you sotre in your lnog-term meromy. (The preceding typos are an example.) It's little wonder that we let typos slip by, and the same applies to our tendency to gloss over higher-level problems in text. Ironically, suppressing the very mechanisms we use to increase our capacity for processing language can help us to probe text for problems and to optimise our writing and editing skills. This is the essence of strategic distance.
Like any proficiency, skilled writing and editing comes from years of effort. Most people significantly improve their writing skills until the "near enough is good enough" frame takes over. So we relax the effort that has already brought us to a plateau of basic, everyday literacy. This is a pity, because writing excellent prose is within the grasp of most educated people, and has considerable life advantages. Sustained effort and fine-tuning seems more important to acquirubg expertise than underlying talent. In particular, by consciously spotting and weeding out common redundancies, you'll start to become adept at turning the soggy into the crisp.
Being a Wikipedian involves close engagement with prose, whether through writing, editing, or critiqueing. The "ten-year rule" suggests that acquiring full expertise in these tasks is not a quick process. But don't be discouraged: your efforts will also reap palpable rewards in the short term.
Wikipedia is a rich and little-used resource for self-training, because it provides a huge reservoir of text at all stages of transformation (sometimes circuitous) from the raw and verbose into the stylish and easy to read. A good way of focusing your efforts on improving your prose is to compare two versions of an article you know has been significantly improved. Here's how to do this:
The rest of this article deals with specific problems.
Redundant wording is common in Wikipedia's articles: removing redundancy will not damage the meaning, and in most cases will strengthen it. Crisp, elegant writing demands the elimination of redundancy.
It takes concentrated practice to identify redundancy, but after a while you'll learn to test every word subconsciously against its context. Ask yourself: "Will the text lose meaning if I remove this?" and "Is there already a word in this sentence that provides the meaning?" Take this sentence:
While the journal had relatively low circulation numbers for its day, it still influenced popular opinion and was feared by the conservative administration.
Did alarm bells ring as you read it? Here, the redundancies are struck through:
While the journal had
relativelylow circulation numbers for its day, it stillinfluenced popular opinion and was feared by the conservative administration.
"Low" is already relative to some norm, which here is explicitly clarified as being "for its day"; thus, "relatively" adds no useful meaning. "Still" has the sense of "all the same" or "nevertheless"; coming after "while" (= "although"), it is totally redundant.
As you strengthen your ability to tighten prose, you'll find many types of redundancy. Here are six:
You may wish to undertake the series of graded exercises we have prepared to sharpen your ability to identify redundancy. These exercises use sentences taken from FACs.
When you explain something in writing rather than orally, many aspects of language are removed, such as your intonation, pitch, speed, rhythm and bodily gestures. In writing, you need to make up for the absence of those speech signals, so that your readers will be just as engaged with your message as when they listen to you: optimising the flow of your writing is an important way of doing this. Flow comprises a number of aspects, from the smallest punctuation mark to the cohesion of the text on a large scale. Flow can make your writing smooth, clear and easy to read; a lack of flow can make it bumpy and disjointed.
Ironically, flow is achieved by manipulating the breaks in the continuity of the text, controlling the structure of your language—the mortar between the bricks large and small. While some aspects of the flow of a particular text will be the subject of widespread agreement by language experts, flow can often be achieved in more than one way; thus, there's a strong element of personal style in this aspect of writing. Inevitably, the advice that we offer here on flow will be less definitive than our advice for other characteristics of good writing.
Apart from writing your Wikipedia article in sections, paragraphing is the largest scale on which you'll need to structure your text. A paragraph break allows your readers to tie up the idea that they've just read about—to "download" it more deeply into their memory—and to start afresh on a new idea or a new aspect of the same idea. Aim for paragraphs of roughly equal size, although some variation in size is often appropriate.
Over-long paragraphs make it harder for your readers to stay interested; a mass of grey text will force them to work hard to keep an ever-increasing amount of information active in their working memory as they wade through. Where it's starting to be too much of a mental juggling act for the readers, try to identify a sentence around the middle of the paragraph that appears to be a departure—to step out into new territory, so to speak: make it the first sentence in a new paragraph.
Similarly, short, "stubby" paragraphs tend to break up the prose, interrupting the flow: give your readers the chance to link a number of sentences into a cohesive whole; that will usually be the easiest way for them to absorb your message. Stubby paragraphs are all too common in Wikipedia articles, and reviewers in the FAC room are apt to object to them. Apart from the psychological effect on the readers, one-sentence paragraphs can result in a fragmented visual appearance. A stubby paragraph should typically be either expanded into full ideas or merged smoothly with another paragraph (most often the previous one). Very occasionally, a single-sentence paragraph might be appropriate to emphasise or summarise an idea.
You may wish to try your hand at our exercise in manipulating paragraph length.
Chopping up snakes
Your readers will also want to "tie up" the information on a more frequent, smaller scale: the sentence. Sentences that are too long are too demanding on readers' working memory: give them opportunities to download what you've just told them in convenient chunks. Here's an example:
It is too long and complex; while there are too many ideas to be expressed in one masterful sentence, this sentence has at least three problems:
The sentence bends disconcertingly, and readers trying to follow it lose their bearings. It's what some people call a "snake", and it needs to be chopped up into manageable portions.
How do we fix this sentence? The first step is to isolate the ideas. There are usually a number of places where we may erect boundaries between these ideas; here's one attempt.
Each of these ideas could stand alone as a sentence. (Since the middle two ideas are particularly close, we could separate them by a semicolon rather than a full-stop.) Let's try doing this. In our chopped-up snake, the four ideas are coloured as above. We've added extra bits in black—either through simple deduction to fill in the context (e.g., "the delegates identified") or to make the sentences cohere (e.g., connectors such as "In particular" and "This" that link back to previous clauses).
We started with one sentence of 64 words. We've transformed this into three sentences that are slightly longer in total: 77 words. The reader has places to pause and consider the ideas, and the text is much easier to read even if it's a little longer.
We've prepared exercises along the same lines, in case you want to practise chopping up long sentences.
Smoothly integrating ideas into a sentence
Just as snakes require too much working memory to read, stubby sentences limit readers to far less than the full capacity of their working memory; they usually interrupt the flow of the text, resulting in a stop-start effect. Sentences of comfortable length are typically constructed from more than the simplest idea. These ideas need to be integrated smoothly and logically into the sentence. One of the commonest problems in FACs is sentences in which the ideas are poorly connected.
To integrate ideas into a sentence, we need to ask ourselves whether their relationship is additive, contrastive or causal. Causal relationships are usually obvious, so we'll deal with these first.
There are two types of causal links: forward and backward.
In a forward link, the first statement causes or leads to the second. Typical forward connectors are therefore and thus. They're largely interchangeable, although thus is more at home in technical contexts. Here are examples:
Other forward links are accordingly and for this/these reason(s). Being longer, they're usually better avoided.
In a backward link, the first statement is caused by or led to by the second. The standard backward connector is because. Two others—since and as—are often used instead of because, but they need extra care. Since can refer to time down to the present, and as can mean "at the same time as". Take the following sentence:
It's unclear whether she was unaware because she moved to Mumbai, or whether she was unaware during the move. It's safer to use because as your causal connector unless the context disambiguates.
The typical placement of the comma is in the direction of causality: after for forward causality; before for backward causality. Although punctuation is usual here in more formal registers such as that used in an encyclopedia, this can vary. For example, the following sentence is short and punchy, and thus needs no comma:
But lengthen the sentence and a comma may make it easier to read:
A comma is usually unnecessary if the causal link is in the middle of a clause. For example:
could be changed into:
Sometimes the causality is obvious; you may be able to dispense with an explicit connector altogether, using a semicolon instead:
If you don't need a word, don't use it!
Typical contrastive links are:
The typical additive link is:
Usually avoid the following additive links:
Academics and technical writers seem to love the last four items in this list; they should know better.
Two poorly used additives on WP
While is a particular problem on Wikipedia. For example:
Does the writer want to emphasise that both spending categories occur at the same time? Surely not—here, while is a poor substitute for and; it's better just to use a semicolon:
Consider that few readers are likely to suppose that the former schemes will be outlined in the federal government's cemeteries, canals or chimneys: there's no need to state the obvious. English grammar allows much duplication to be cut, as well. The result:
With as an additive link is another common problem on WP; it's usually awkward. For example:
Far too much ing (and unnecessary repetition). Rewrite as:
Here's another example:
Uncomfortable to read? It should appear so to you: the sentence is rather too long, and the "with" clause is, strictly speaking, ungrammatical (an apostrophe is required in actors', which is itself a little clumsy nowadays). Let's get rid of the troublesome "with" connector and give our poor readers a rest in the middle, using a semicolon:
Had you noticed the redundant "previously", which is covered by the past tense? And yes, a semicolon is better than a period, since the two halves are so closely linked.
Confusion between additive and contrastive links
This is surprisingly common in FACs. Take the following sentence, which connects two ideas with the commonest contrastive link, but.
The second idea doesn't contradict the first; it just provides additional information. While Hong Kong may be a very different location from London and Manchester, it's perfectly possible to live in Hong Kong having been raised in the UK. But is wrong here, because it introduces a statement that contradicts the previous statement or that is surprising or unexpected coming after the previous statement. Here, replacing the contrastive link with the most common additive link—and—will fix the problem:
Additive relationships: how close are the ideas?
When you're adding ideas together—rather than contrasting them or showing that one leads to the other—the way you integrate them will depend on how close and long they are. There are three basic ways of linking them.
The use of these methods is partly a matter of personal style, although there are cases where most readers would prefer one method over the others. Here's an example of two relatively short ideas:
Both ideas concern the visual appearance of the birds, specifically that of their feathers. By integrating them into a single sentence, we're making this closeness obvious to the readers, and avoiding the stop–start effect of two short, successive sentences:
In (2), the semicolon keeps the readers' minds focused on the same issue: the feathers. In (1), The full-stop suggested that the next sentence would take a different direction, but in (1), it didn't. The next example shows a good use of the full-stop—the second sentence addresses a different issue, food:
The sentences are still close enough to juxtapose, but the common theme is much broader than feathers or food: it's "most emu species" ("they"). The full-stop warns readers to prepare for something different, although they'll still expect it to flow smoothly from what they've just read.
This next example is satisfactory:
However, the ideas are so closely connected that we might consider joining them with a comma plus and:
You may wish to try our exercises in correcting sentences with poorly integrated ideas.
Much encyclopedic and academic text comprises lists. The items in a list range from the very long, such as paragraphs and sections, to the very short, such as the words in a sentence (e.g., "They treat dogs, cats and parrots"). Here, we'll focus on lists of shorter items, where the list has a discernible rhythm and contains standardised signals—punctuation and new lines—to help the reader through. Controlling the strength of the boundaries between the items is critical when constructing a list. This is achieved by manipulating the punctuation and line-formatting to achieve an optimal balance between allowing your readers to easily comprehend the list and providing them with a smooth, uninterrupted flow of words.
Lists are binary: they typically have (i) a lead, which introduces (ii) the items. (Occasionally, the order is reversed so that the listed items come first; e.g., "Limes, sugar and water are the only ingredients".)
Here are the basic questions that you'll need to answer when you construct a list.
First, we show you some examples of the basic types of list, followed by brief advice on formatting. Then we deal, category by category, with the commonest problems in listing.
We've prepared models and examples of the main types of list—single-sentence and multisentence lists, and within these categories, running and lined lists. This is not an exhaustive list, and the guidelines here arise at least partly from personal choice. For each type, we've used "LEAD" to stand for all of the words in the lead; this will run directly into a three-item list, in which the items are represented by A, B and C. Hit [Show] in the upper box to reveal the example and comments on it. Please widen your window if the display is distorted.
A running list is smoothly integrated into its paragraph, and will not be obvious at a glance. Occasionally, contributors to FACs are asked to change lined lists into running lists to provide greater flow and neater visual appearance. Running lists are almost ubiquitous, and we've all become skilled at reading them fluently—even when they're complex. Strictly speaking, the first two sentences in this paragraph are running lists, in which the lead–item boundaries fall after "list" and "provide", respectively. Let's revisit these two sentences, marking the lead–item boundary with / and colouring the items.
Here are some of the common types of running list.
TYPE 1 (nothing + commas)
LEAD A, B and C.
Macro-economics concerns the three policy goals of economic
growth, price stability and full employment.
TYPE 2 (colon + semicolons)
LEAD: A; B; and C.
Macro-economics concerns three policy goals: economic
growth; price stability; and full employment.
TYPE 3 (the addition of numbers to Models 1 or 2)
LEAD (1) A, (2) B, and (3) C.
LEAD: (1) A; (2) B; and (3) C.
Macro-economics concerns the three policy goals of (1) economic
growth, (2) price stability, and (3) full employment.
Macro-economics concerns three policy goals: (1) economic
growth; (2) price stability; and (3) full employment.
Placing each item on a separate line provides even stronger boundaries, making the items visually distinct. This allows readers to digest the list easily, mentally "ticking off" each item line by line, and facilitates the re-reading and comparison of items. Lined lists allow readers to easily identify and focus on only the items that they need, which can be important in an organisation in which the same document is read by staff with very different roles and responsibilities. The white space that lined lists create can break up masses of grey paragraphs, which is more inviting to readers in many contexts. For all of these reasons, lined lists are much liked in corporate, government and administrative documents; although lined lists are less prevalent in academic (and encyclopedic) text, their use has been increasing.
Lined lists come at a cost: their very strong boundaries work against the flow of the text. This is why reviewers in the FAC room tend to object unless this formatting is used judiciously, especially at the top of an article where flow is of the essence to engage the readers. There are exceptions to this, but try to keep lined lists few in number and short, or your article will be seen as "listy" and thus more appropriate as a Featured List than a Featured Article.
TYPE 4 (colon plus semicolons, lined)
Macro-economics concerns three policy goals:
TYPE 5 (colon plus semicolons, lined and numbered)
(2) B; and
Macro-economics concerns three policy goals:
(1) economic growth;
(2) price stability; and
(3) full employment.
These are appropriate when the items are long and complex, and/or contain more than one sentence or clause. FA Criteria 2 and 3 used to be cast as single sentences, and were changed to a multi-sentence format, because the items (now Criteria 1 and 2) were thought to be easier to read as stand-alone sentences. Multi-sentence lists can be running or lined; in this subsection, we treat both types.
TYPE 6 (running and numbered)
LEAD. First, A. Second, B. Third, C.
Macro-economics concerns three policy goals that have been the pre-occupation
of many economists and policy-makers for decades. The first is economic
growth, a key platform for moving people out of poverty. The second is price stability,
or low levels of inflation; this is widely regarded as a prerequisite for a healthy
economy. The third is full employment, which has the potential to
reduce social problems.
Macro-economics concerns three policy goals that have been the pre-occupation
of many economists and policy-makers for decades. (1) Economic growth, a key platform for
moving people out of poverty. (2) Price stability, in other words, low levels of inflation; this is
widely regarded as a prerequisite for a healthy economy. (3) Full employment,
which has the potential to reduce social problems.
TYPE 7 (lined and bulletted or numbered)
Macro-economics concerns three policy goals that have been the pre-occupation of
many economists and policy-makers for decades.
Macro-economics concerns three policy goals that have been the pre-occupation of
many economists and policy-makers for decades.
Alternative systems of numbering lists
Subset terms frame the items of your list as part of a larger set of items. These terms need to be used with care. Common subset terms are:
Many writers get into a habit of automatically using a subset term to introduce lists—especially the term "includes". This signals to the reader that the list is incomplete—that there are other items aside from those in the list. If the list is complete (which is usually the case), use terms such as comprises or consists of instead. Here's an example.
No, that indicates that natural numbers can be other things as well; they can't. This is correct:
or you could indicate the relationship of the items to the set and to each other more precisely:
If your list is incomplete, take care not to double up on subset terms. Here, there's one subset term before and one after the items:
"The most important" indicates that you're drawing on a larger set; telling us twice will weaken the text. This is better:
Vagueness in the lead
Rather than using a vague term, such as several or various, specify the number of items in the lead. For example, instead of:
In any case, it's usually unnecessary to tell us how many items we're about to read.
Check the formatting where running lists are long and/or complex, especially where you've removed or pasted in items. Remember the basic formulas, which hold no matter how long or complex the items:
This is wrong (A, B); the writer has removed the C item without checking the residual formatting. Here's the original sentence.
These can turn a hedgehog sentence into something more manageable. Full repetitions such as this:
can be reduced to:
Relocate clause-initial repetitions to the lead
Where every item of a single-sentence list starts the same way, relocate the repeated text up to the lead. For example:
To help strengthen the US democratic process:
would be easier to read as:
To help strengthen the US democratic process, you can:
"And" and "or"
There's a tendency among some writers to use "or" between the second-last and last items in a list, where they mean "and". A, B or C means EITHER A OR B OR C. "And" is the default for lists in English: A, B and C. Using "and" doesn't necessarily mean that all items in a list apply all of the time; it can still mean that only one item applies on any one occasion. For example:
English may be idiosyncratic in this respect, because we've noticed that many non-native speakers, particularly those who come from East Asian languages, over-prefer "or" in lists.
Check that the semantic and conceptual boundaries between the items are distinct and logical. The most common category problem arises when one item is a subset of another. Here's an example:
At first glance, the reader is justified in asking: "Isn't the comic strip part of the contents?" It may be that the writer is trying to distinguish between the graphics and the linguistic text in the bubbles; it's hard to know.
Museums are tourist attractions, so already the boundaries are unclear. The writer resolved the problem here by replacing "tourist attractions" with a more focused item.
Another problem arises when the categories are too different, usually conceptually:
Divination is the practice of seeking knowledge of the future or the unknown by supernatural means. A talisman is an object, typically an inscribed ring or stone, that is thought to have magic powers and to bring good luck. It would have been better to treat these two uses in separate clauses or even sentences.
Consistent grammar and formatting
Keep the grammar and formatting consistent. The following list mixes two common grammatical constructions.
Two of the four items start with a nominalisation (the checking of and the organisation of) and two start with straight "-ing" verbs (copy-editing and justifying). Either way is fine, but you need to choose one and stick to it throughout the list. Here, we've chosen to nominalise the verb at the start of each item, which gives it a more formal, steady-state feel, rather than the active, dynamic, "doing" sense conveyed by the straight "-ing" verbs:
Now your readers don't have to rejig their mental idea of the grammar to read each new item: much easier.
Here's an example of an elaborate list from a FAC—a list of lists, in fact—that is littered with parentheses and quote marks and is illogically formatted and inconsistent. During the FAC process, this example was significantly improved; see how many areas for improvement you can identify, then hit Show to see the hints.
Hit [Show] in the top box to view hints. Hit [Show] in the bottom box to view the improved version.
The vector consists of several components:
Wikipedia needs to appeal to a wide range of native and non-native speakers, many of whom are time-poor. Writing plain English is a good way to achieve this. Many writers want to write text with an air of authority, and use longer-than-necessary and/or old-fashioned forms in the hope of appearing more formal. In most cases, you'll get your point across more effectively by avoiding the following words and phrases (suggested replacements appear after the arrows):
THE REMAINDER OF THIS ARTICLE IS UNDER CONSTRUCTION.
All of these links are free.
We don't agree with everything on these sites, but they provide valuable interactive tutorials for non-native speakers who want to improve their English. Beware a mild commercial push in a few places.