Exercise Your Editing with This Exercise

By Mark Nichol

Editing is as much an art as writing is. Whether you’re finessing your own writing or revising the work of another, the process requires simultaneous attention to multiple issues: spelling, grammar, style, accuracy, formality, and the subjective aspect of substance: providing context, assigning meaning and conveying value, and more.

When I was a copyediting instructor, one of my favorite activities was creating error-ridden editing exercises for my students. (Sadistic, I know — but they got their money’s worth.) Here, I inflict one such compositional concentration of calamity of on you — free of charge. But before you read beyond the following paragraph, copy and paste it and give it your best editing effort, then come back and compare your revision with mine:

“On Jan. 20th, 1960 then-President John Kennedy delivered his notorious Ask Not What You Can Do for Your Country Speech. Kennedy launched not only America’s Space Program that sent men to the moon, but stood up to Russia when they threatened the free world during the missile crisis. During his Presidency, Peace Corps was formed; the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was signed by the Soviets; and the Civil Rights Act was passed. (However, he stumbled when, in a speech in Berlin in 1963, he told the Germans, “Ich bin ein Berliner.” He intended to communicate “I am a Berliner,” but the way he said it meant, “I am a jelly doughnut.”) Only 42-years-old when elected, the youngest president, his legacy is a less than three year presidency compared with Camelot.”

Here’s my quick fix, followed by annotations:

“President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address on January 20, 1961, is memorable for the statement “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country,” and he answered his own challenge. During his administration, he not only pressed for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to achieve a manned landing on the Moon by the end of the 1960s but also confronted the Soviet Union over that country’s plan to install nuclear weapons in Cuba that would be aimed at the United States.

Also, during Kennedy’s presidency, tragically abbreviated when he was assassinated on November 22, 1963, the Peace Corps was formed; the United States, the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom signed the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty; and Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The legacy of Kennedy, only forty-two years old when he was elected, is of a brief period of peace and prosperity; indeed, his administration was compared to the glory of King Arthur’s Camelot.”

  • Note the correction of the style of the month and date, and correction of the year itself.
  • Our thirty-fifth president’s name is John F. Kennedy.
  • If I had retained “then-President” before Kennedy’s name, I would omit the hyphen and lowercase the name of the office, which because of the modifier then becomes an epithet rather than a specific job title.
  • Because Kennedy’s inaugural address is notable for other excerpts as well, I chose, in identifying it, to focus on the line — giving it in its entirety — and not on the speech. But if you do refer to a speech, style the reference as follows: “his ‘Ask not what you can for your country’ speech.” (Also, notorious is not an apt description for the address.)
  • If I were editing someone else’s work, I would query for the writer’s approval of insertion of “he answered his own challenge,” which I think provides a transition to what would otherwise be merely a grocery list of accomplishments.
  • I corrected the erroneous “not only . . . but also” construction.
  • There is no such entity as “America’s Space Program,” so the latter two words should not have been capitalized. (And, whenever possible, use the more precise “United States” in place of America in reference to the nation.)
  • In this context, moon is the formal name of an astronomical feature, rather than a generic word for such a phenomenon, and should therefore be capitalized.
  • Although Russia is an informal alternative to “the Soviet Union,” it should be avoided in such usage. (“The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics” was the official name of the country during this period, but the two-word version is acceptable.)
  • A nation is a singular entity and should not be referred to as “they.”
  • “Free world” is subjective and provocative in this otherwise neutrally written passage.
  • Because of the lack of specificity and capitalization, “the missile crisis” implies a previous reference to the incident. It should be referred to by its capitalized full name.
  • As written, the sentence beginning “During his Presidency” (there is no reason to capitalize presidency, by the way) requires only commas, not semicolons. I retained the latter punctuation marks only because I rewrote the list of achievements in a complex form, with internal commas in the second item. I also revised the passive construction to active form.
  • I inserted the phrase about his assassination to provide context.
  • “Peace Corps,” like the similarly constructed names of most entities, should be preceded by the article the.
  • Several nations signed the treaty, and if any are identified, all should be identified.
  • The phrase “of 1964” is part of the formal name of the act.
  • The “Ich bin ein Berliner” gaffe is a popular myth; residents of Berlin did not, and do not, call jelly doughnuts “Berliner.” (Beyond that, even if the story were true, the incident is minor when compared with the other highlights of Kennedy’s presidency listed here, and the passage provides insufficient context.)
  • A person’s age, when not applied as a modifier, should not be hyphenated (except for linking ones-place and tens-place numbers, as in forty-two). Also, I prefer to follow The Chicago Manual of Style in spelling ages out.
  • The first phrase of the last sentence is a dangling modifier; “the . . . president” is incorrectly identified as his own legacy.
  • “The youngest president” is an awkwardly truncated interjection. My more extended parenthetical is only one of several possibilities.
  • The phrase “less than three year,” as a modifier for presidency, should be hyphenated; I deleted the entire phrase because it seemed to distract from the point of the passage. Also, there was insufficient context for the reference to Camelot.

This passage could be edited in as many versions as there are editors, and, given further context, would be further improved by additional changes. My effort attends to the deficiencies in the several categories I listed in the first paragraph of this post. Share in a comment below how and why your edits differ from mine and others.

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18 Responses to “Exercise Your Editing with This Exercise”

  • Chuck Hackley

    “This passage could be edited in as many versions as there are editors, and, given further context, would be further improved by additional changes.” This is the scary part! Over the years, I find that every editor, in order to justify his/her job feels it is a mandatory duty to alter, gut, change, re-format, adjust, tweak or in some way re-create the work. In my opinion, in most cases, the whole work then becomes so distorted that it is unrecognizable. I learned for an old man, many years ago, that as long as you are understood by the audience, it does not really matter what the format of your speech, book or painting takes. That is, when I am conveying the message, I am right, but when you have the floor, you are right. If you are not creative enough or do not know the subject matter at hand well enough to generate your own version, then you do not have the right to criticise my efforts.
    I love your daily posts and delve into each one of them trying to learn, but I do get very frustrated with ‘editor types’ who seem to think that they not only know how to communicate, but that they are an absolute expert on every subject throughout the world.

  • Phillis Simpson

    I never received ebook, Basic English Grammar. I have enjoyed many of your activities that I received through email. If at all possible, I would really appreciate sending me the downoad link. Have a great day! Phillis

  • Meg Brookman

    On January 20, 1961, President John F. Kennedy delivered his famous, ‘Ask not what you can do for your country’ speech.

    Elected the youngest president at 42, Kennedy proved that he had both foresight and strength of character when he launched America’s space program that sent men to the moon and stood up to the Soviet Union during the Cuban Missile Crisis. In his tenure, the Peace Corps was established, the U.S. signed the Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty with the Soviets and the United Kingdom, and the Civil Rights Act was passed.

    Although not a man without flaws, the oft told story of President Kennedy misspeaking German in Berlin is no more than an urban legend.

    Assassinated before completing three years in office, his presidency and influence has been compared with that of the magical but doomed kingdom of Camelot.

  • Mark Nichol

    I have been informed that there’s an error of fact in my revision: The Civil Rights Act of 1964, as should be clear from the act’s name, was passed after Kennedy’s death. While fact-checking, I misread the source passage, which referred to Kennedy’s influence on the legislation.

  • Jan Lesch

    The “Ich bin ein Berliner” gaffe is a popular myth; residents of Berlin did not, and do not, call jelly doughnuts “Berliner.” (Beyond that, even if the story were true, the incident is minor when compared with the other highlights of Kennedy’s presidency listed here, and the passage provides insufficient context.)

    > Residents of Berlin call jelly doughnuts “Pfannkuchen”, but outside of Berlin many Germans call it “Berliner”.

    See also Wikipedia contributors. “Berliner (pastry).” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 10 Jan. 2012. Web. 11 Jan. 2012.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Berliner_(pastry)#Regional_variations

  • Mandy

    I really enjoyed this blog and would like to see more like it.

    Thanks and keep up the good work.

  • Larry Barkley

    As Ms. Brookman indicates, Kennedy calling himself a jelly donut is, indeed, not true. For a discussion of the clause “Ich bin ein Berliner,” please see http://www.snopes.com/language/misxlate/berliner.asp.

    It is time you removed this urban legend from your editing exercise so that the error is not perpetuated.

  • Cliff Wilkinson

    Mark,

    Let us assume for the moment that this was not an exercise. Let us assume it was a piece that someone else had submitted to you for editing.

    My feeling is that you haven’t edited the piece at all; rather, I think you have rewritten it. It is enormously improved, to be sure; but I don’t think it belongs to the original writer anymore. I think it now belongs to you.

    Perhaps in future you could write a post on what exactly the role of an editor ought to be.

  • thebluebird11

    While I agree with Cliff that this was more of a re-write than a simple edit, if the paragraph had actually submitted to an editor, this is what would have happened to it. The original paragraph is poorly written, vague, disjointed and inaccurate. I personally don’t have enough first-hand knowledge to correct the inaccuracies (names of acts, exact dates), but could–and would–certainly look them up if I were called upon to be the editor. In my own edited version, which was very basic, I couldn’t even fix the last sentence because I had NO idea what the writer was trying to say!

  • Mark Nichol

    Thanks for the various comments about this post. Unlike many but not all of the sample sentences I provide in other posts to illustrate effective revision, this is an artificial piece; I wrote it myself in such a way that I could point out a number of types of errors. The original version is an unusually poor piece of writing, but it is not unrealistic to expect that an editor would be exposed to such ineptly constructed prose. It is also not necessarily inappropriate for an editor to undertake what is in effect a rewrite, as I did. In such a case, many assigning editors will agree that achieving clarity and coherence is more important than retaining the author’s (clumsy) voice.

    It’s difficult to find sentences and longer passages that provide more than one or two errors for illustrative or corrective purposes, which is why I crafted this one myself, but the next time I provide an exercise like this, I’ll try to produce a passage that requires editing rather than rewriting.

  • Johanna Brown

    Thanks for the post Mark! As a full-time writer and editor, I use your site regularly for my daily writing exercise before I begin my work day. I thought this was a fabulous editing exercise as I often receive work that has to be re-written in order to be edited properly. If deadlines permit, I often give writers the opportunity to re-write it themselves, however, if a deadline is looming…well, let’s just say clarity wins.

    P.S. I will mostly likely use this exercise with my new crop of writing interns!

  • Meg Brookman

    ‘It is also not necessarily inappropriate for an editor to undertake what is in effect a rewrite, as I did. In such a case, many assigning editors will agree that achieving clarity and coherence is more important than retaining the author’s (clumsy) voice.’

    Bravo, Mark! I couldn’t agree more and am adding this to the top of my list of writing/editing quotations.

  • gabrielle T

    I am suffering the same quandary as Phillis Simpson , I too cannot download the E. Book although trying many times. Please send the link, – thanks Gabrielle.

  • Precise Edit

    I have received and edited many documents that read much like the unedited text above.

    In such a case, what is the role of the editor? The answer is simple, from the perspective of the client: Make my document / paper / article / etc. better. Do what needs to be done.

    Sometimes little revision is needed. Sometimes, as in the case above, the needs are great and the final piece hardly resembles the original.

    Is it still the client’s document? Yes. The one thing I don’t change is the ideas–the content. Rather, I improve the manner in which the ideas are expressed. The content still belongs to the client.

    I know I have succeeded with a challenging piece when the client says, “You got it! That’s what I was trying to say.”

  • Upadhyayula Narayana Das

    Here is how I edit the passage:

    President John F Kennedy delivered his famous speech beginning with the words, ‘Ask Not What You Can Do for Your Country’ on the 20th of January 1960. It was Kennedy who launched America’s space programme that sent man to the moon. He stood up to Russia when she threatened the free world with nuclear weapons during the missile crisis. His short three year Presidency was marked by many achievements which include forming the ‘Peace Corps’, signing the ‘Nuclear Test Ban Treaty’ with Russia and passing the Civil Rights Act. His only faux pas was in a speech he delivered in Berlin in 1963. Intending to impress the Germans with a few lines in German, by saying “I am a Berliner”, he instead miffed his lines saying “Ich bin ein Berliner”, which translates as, “I am a jelly doughnut.” Elected to the high office at the relatively young age of forty two, his legacy of three years is comparable to that of Camelot.

  • Grady

    Many point you make are valid, but what you have done isn’t really copyediting; it’s rewriting. You have taken the salient points of the original text and conformed them to your own preferences, leaving very little of the style and tone of the original.

  • Mark Nichol

    Grady:

    As others have stated here, copyediting sometimes becomes rewriting, and when the style and tone of the original are awkward and discordant, the copy editor must craft new text that captures the gist of the original’s meaning, trying to retain whatever component of style and tone is salvageable. If the writing is competent, and the style and tone are workable, the editor has an easier time of preserving the latter qualities.

  • Becky @ Becky’s Kaleidoscope

    As Jan also pointed out, while it is true that people in Berlin do not refer to jelly donuts as ‘Berliner’, many people in Germany do (and this is what they are called in Denmark as well). So there is some truth to the story after all.

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