“Only idiots need editors.”

Ouch. I’ve literally just heard someone say, “Only idiots need editors.”

“Tell that to J.K. Rowling,” my husband responded. At that, my inner Macaulay Culkin (circa Home Alone 2) dropped on one knee and fist pumped with an emphatic “YES!” because:

(a) my guy reflexively stood up to a bully for me (which is awesome),
(b) he appreciates Rowling (which means he mustn’t hate the countless hours of HP talk I’ve subjected him to), and
(c) he gave me a great argument to use here in this article. Thanks, Paul!

Editing is a rather broad term that fails in every language I speak to cover the breadth and depth of what kind of support it actually is. This is why I think the perpetrator (insert stink-eye emoji here) probably meant no harm but spoke (at least primarily) from ignorance.

Editing is not spell-checking. Otherwise, you could ask just about anyone to review your writing, and even your word processor can tell the difference between their and there in context. (And by the way, it doesn’t take an idiot to overlook a spelling mistake.)

Instead, editing is an integral part of any manuscript’s lifecycle. Spelling is, of course, a concern, but there are different kinds of editing, and each is approached with a specific focus and varying degrees of intensity.

If you want to be less ignorant than that guy, check out this page for more on the kinds of editing that masterful authors have always depended on for professional, objective feedback and guidance in the development of their stories—fiction or otherwise.

P. S. A humble shout out to writer and J.K. Rowling’s editor, Arthur A. Levine, who doesn’t, in fact, work for an idiot.

Why You Should RUE: Resist the Urge to Explain

RUE (i.e., resist the urge to explain) is a brilliant yet common-sense concept from Browne and King, the authors of one my favorite editing resources, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself into Print. Importantly, this is not just a wise warning for fiction writers but a principle to be observed by nonfiction and academic writers as well.

What resist the urge to explain means is (hopefully) self-evident, but the grounds for RUE may be less so. There are plenty of reasons to avoid unnecessary explanation, but let’s skip the mindless enumeration and take a look at an example of R.U.E. in action.

Last night I watched Hidden Figures, a nonfiction-book-based film1 that follows three female African-American mathematicians working for NASA during the Space Race with the USSR and, importantly, the U.S. Civil Rights movement. Let’s explore R.U.E. using my favorite line from the film, a simple yet powerful response delivered by Octavia Spencer’s Dorothy Vaughan, an acting computer supervisor who is repeatedly denied an official promotion and the corresponding raise. After a brief but icy exchange that follows weeks of sharpening tension, her immediate supervisor, played by Kirsten Dunst, stops Spencer on her way out of the newly desegregated ladies’ room:

“Despite what you may think,” Dunst says, “I have nothing against y’all.”

Spencer stops. Turning to look at Dunst, she says, “I know you probably believe that.”

Bazinga! Simple, yet powerful. As Spencer exits (leaving behind a thoughtful Ms. Dunst), I’m grinning like a buffoon and throwing a million mental high-fives in Spencer’s direction from my beanbag.

But what’s this got to do with R.U.E.? Let’s explore another take of this exchange:

“Despite what you may think,” Dunst says defensively, “I have nothing against y’all.”

Annoyed by the fact that Dunst clearly doesn’t get it, Spencer stops and turns to face her. “I know you probably believe that,” she says ironically. “Maybe you think you’re not racist, and maybe you aren’t consciously, but if being Black means that I’m less fit to be a supervisor than you, then I’d say, yes, you’re holding something against me: my skin color.”

Dunst was bewildered by Spencer’s accusation. She stood in stunned silence as she watched her leave.

Okay, I added a bunch of rubbish here, but hopefully I made my point. Not only have the explanations (of emotion, manner, and the meaning of the utterance) insulted our intelligence by assuming that (a) we wouldn’t have been able to figure it out on our own and (b) our imaginations wouldn’t have been able to fill in the blanks, the exchange has also completely lost its bazinga! factor. By adding “defensively,” I’ve intruded upon your interpretation of Dunst’s character and her statement. I’ve made it one-dimensional and “boxed it in” by limiting the way the readers’ imaginations may have played the scene out. Furthermore, we certainly didn’t need clarification that Dorothy’s statement was ironic or that her supervisor’s cluelessness really ground her gears.

In the case of fiction and creative writing, Browne and King’s discussion of RUE specifically addresses the naming of the emotion behind a character’s behavior or language, as in the addition of defensively and ironically to the dialogue tags and the description of the emotional states bewildered and annoyed. The trouble with descriptions like these are connected to the Show, Don’t Tell rule:

[The] tendency to describe a character’s emotion may reflect a lack of confidence on the part of the writer. And more often than not, writers tell their readers things already shown by dialogue and action. It’s as if they’re repeating themselves to make sure their readers get the point. So when you come across an explanation of a character’s emotion, simply cut the explanation. If the emotion is still shown, then the explanation wasn’t needed. If the emotion isn’t shown, rewrite the passage so that it is. (Browne & King, 1993, p. 17)

In nonfiction and other genres, writers have to be cautious to avoid providing unnecessary explanations (like my addition of the meaning behind Spencer’s original line). Yes, of course, you should explain concepts or arguments that won’t be clear to your readers otherwise, but every reader can be assumed to have some level of critical-thinking ability, so don’t think for them.

A final quote from Browne and King on the work of a writer who managed to RUE throughout her novel. Although they’re still talking about fiction, the principle applies equally to all genres of writing:

Also, by never explaining her situations, by trusting her readers to keep up her, [the author] pays her readers the compliment of assuming them to be intelligent. And that’s a compliment any writer would do well to pass along. (Browne & King, 1993, p. 37)


1based on the autobiographical novel by Margot Lee Shetterly

Why Good Words Go Missing

As a careful writer, I craft my sentences with something akin to obsession. My writing process is a reiterative cycle: write, rewrite, delete, write, tweak, and rewrite again. I select every word deliberately. I organize every paragraph with intention.

For choosy writers who can relate to this—those of you who don’t write anything haphazardly—getting the revised manuscript back from the editor can sometimes leave you feeling… wounded.

You’ll recognize the motives behind most revisions, but others may baffle you. Some of my clients have asked for clarity:

“My sentence was grammatically sound. So, why did my editor delete perfectly good words?”

Why Good Words Go Missing

When the manuscript comes back from the editor, it’s up to you to consider the revisions and to either accept or reject the proposed changes. You may find that the revised version has a (substantially) lower word count than the draft you submitted. But why? Where did all your words go?

53068728My favorite way to answer this is through three words borrowed from the American Psychological Association’s (2010) publication guide: Economy of Expression.

They advise, “[s]ay only what needs to be said. The author who is frugal with words not only writes a more readable manuscript but also increases the chances that the manuscript will be accepted for publication” (American Psychological Association, 2010, p. 67).

You may not be concerned with getting published, but every writer should be concerned about wordiness and needless repetition. In Zinsser’s (1976/2006) classic writing guide, he warns against clutter in various forms, such as phrasal verbs that needn’t be phrasal (e.g. free up) and descriptive words that don’t add any meaning (e.g. tall skyscraper).

To illustrate what this looks like in academic writing, let’s identify some elements that don’t lend any clarity or deeper meaning to these sentences (taken from an early draft of one of my research reports—gulp):

The two languages have the same nasal and glide inventories in common (i.e., /m/, /n/, and /ŋ/; /w/ and /j/) with some differences in phonotactic constraints, which I will explore later in this discussion.

What does “in common” tell us that “have the same” does not? Nothing. It’s redundant and unnecessary. (Cut from the team!) Furthermore, “two” is unbearably unnecessary considering that this comes from an analysis comparing exactly two languages’ sound systems. (You’re out!) And while we’re at it, announcing that I would explore the topic later “in the discussion” was probably just as superfluous—where else would I mean? If we’re worried about “later” seeming lonely at the end of the sentence (and I do worry about words feeling lonely), perhaps “in a later section” would work better.

Let’s look at one more:

According to the informants, these words are reported to be palatalized in rapid, casual speech as /ʤan/ and /ʤos/, whereas standard, deliberate, and formal pronunciations would be produced as /djan/ and /djos/.

Having been disconnected from the manuscript for several years at this point, the phrase “are reported to” above seems blatantly needless to me now, not to mention nonsensical if you reflect on it for a moment longer (my informants explained some variation and produced the sound for me—they did not tell me that it has been reported that the sound is sometimes palatalized!).

Clearly, not even cautious writers are safe from the pitfalls of excessive, needless language. We can do our messages justice with fewer words and greater precision, especially in academic writing where content brings its own weight in complexity.

Strengthen Your Writing: Clear the Clutter

Let’s get economical. Below, I’ve shared some sample sentences taken either from my own writing or from clients who’ve kindly agreed to let their work be shared anonymously. Take a look and consider how you might improve them. Are there any needless words that can be removed? Are there complicated, wordy phrases that can be replaced with a simpler one? After you’ve examined the samples and imagined a solution, compare your approach to mine.

  1. In his own study, Wikström (2014) demonstrated the way that hashtags are multifunctional linguistic devices, facilitating far more than mere topic classification.
  2. However infrequent, it is true that whom continues to serve a purpose in certain genres, and, indeed, some writers still make use of it appropriately, even if they are confined to academia and scholarly writing.
  3. The connection between the first two criteria and size is less straightforward than simply stating “more is better.”
  4. During the interview, it became quite clear that the informant’s view of herself in terms of her cultural identity was far from simple. When asked where she is from, she responded, “I’m from Syria,” and yet this is only a part of the answer.
  5. This may be viewed as an example of scaffolding that is “contingent on actual need” (Van Patten & Williams, 2007, loc. 5559), as Milly provides only that which is minimally necessary for Lacy to make the appropriate connections. The explanations do not provide anything beyond what Lacy needs.

Finally, consider the three variations of the same sentence below, ranging from needlessly wordy to simple and precise:

  • To speak as frankly as possible my dear, I really just don’t give much of a damn.
  • To speak frankly my dear, I just don’t give a damn.
  • Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.

The added words (and unforgivable hedging) do nothing more than dilute the utterance of whatever quality made Rhett so perfectly quotable. So, what’s the take away?

Extra words don’t give extra meaning. In academic writing, long and complex sentences are inevitable. Ease the task of your reader and give your manuscript readability. If you’ve got an editor that you trust, take a long, hard look at the words that he or she nominated for removal and consider the possibility that fewer words can actually accomplish more.


American Psychological Association. (2010). Publication manual of the American Psychological Association (6th ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Zinsser, W. (1976/2006). On writing well. New York, NY: HarperCollins.