Fifteen tips for making any document look and read better

How to polish copy with only minutes to spare.

How to polish copy with only minutes to spare It’s 15 minutes to deadline, and after some begging and pleading, one of your contributors has finally e-mailed you an article that needs to make it into the latest publication. You can pray to the copyediting gods that the piece is OK—or you can use this list of tips to give the text a quick-and-easy cleanup job. (It’s not a bad idea to give your own copy a scan using these same tips.)

Note that for the most part, these minor changes won’t require you to schedule fresh meetings with the contributor, or go back to legal for approvals. However, these changes will impart a professional polish to text, even when time is in short supply. 1. Your friend, the period. Chop up some longer sentences in your copy, and you’ll instantly make it more readable. (This is a useful shortcut when you’re dealing with copy that’s already been approved by legal and other higher-ups—since you’re not making word changes or rewriting the text, you won’t need to go back for more approvals.) According to The Associated Press Guide to News Writing, writers should aim for an “average” sentence length of 16 or 17 words. Sentences of more than 20 words are a tough read. Naturally, some sentences will be longer that this ideal, and some will be shorter, since readers like some variety. But a quick scan of sentence length may lead you to some sentences that can be broken up with a period. 2. Slice up some paragraphs. This is similar to the advice above. Long grafs are intimidatingto the reader—it’s a lot of gray space. Look for logical places to cut a graf in half, adding the necessary transition words. (Again, you shouldn’t need to get fresh approvals since you’re not materially changing the text.) 3. Spell out inscrutable acronyms. Don’t assume the reader will understand EFF, AA or even UCLA. Thanks to the Internet, you have a global readership, and people in Norway may not have any idea that IRS means Internal Revenue Service. When in doubt, spell it out—at least on first reference. 4. Impose consistent style for numbers. Whether you use AP, the Chicago Manual of Style or your own style guide, you should do a quick check for consistent style for numbers throughout the document. A hodgepodge of styles—for instance, some numbers under 10 spelled out, and others as numerals—will reduce the finished piece’s polish. 5. Tone down the initial caps. Too much capitalization will make your article read like it is a Senate testimony (not an effect you usually want). Some of your contributors may be under the illusion that something in initial caps looks more important, and that every title needs to be in initial caps or no one will take it seriously. If a name is generic and not a re- cognized product or service name, it probably doesn’t need to be in initial caps. Also, consider lowercasing business titles, such as vice president or communications director (but CEO and CFO are OK). 6. Nix ampersands. Your contributing writers may be tempted to use ampersands as a replacement for the word “and.” This is a too-casual use of the symbol, so do a search-and-replace for ampersands. They only should be used as part of a recognized company or product name (like A&P). 7. Eliminate “noun disease.” Even ex- perienced writers fall into this trap, especially in our first drafts: weakening active verbs by adding nouns or other modifiers. For example, a writer will use “gave permission to” instead of “permitted,” or “put in an appearance” instead of “appeared.” As you read the draft, look for every opportunity to cut such extraneous words. By doing so, you’ll create a crisper, tighter article. And don’t stop with verbs: Look for unnecessary words that don’t add any color or context. Think phrases like “meaningless gibberish,” “personal opinion,” and “ultimate outcome,” where the first word is really just window dressing. 8. Shoot for the short. The Associated Press Guide to News Writing offers a useful mantra when editing or writing a wordy document:

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