Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Copy Edit du Jour: Breaking up isn't hard to do

Yesterday I showed a writer friend this passage* from an article I was copy editing about a young couple's courtship:

Supporting each other through their education and in their career dreams has been a vein running through their 10-year relationship that continues today as Jones pursues her dreams of becoming a licensed psychiatrist.

After graduating from the New York-based Cornell University where Wilson earned a degree in chemistry and Jones earning multiple degrees in accounting, mathematics and psychology, Wilson realized that he did not want to pursue a career in chemistry. He enrolled in NYU to earn another bachelor degree in civil engineering. During this period, Jones decided that she wanted to enter medical school and thus began taking pre-med courses at Princeton.
My friend was shocked. "You really have your work cut out for you," she said. On the contrary, I said. Fixing troubled prose like this usually means just 1. looking for ways to break up unwieldy sentences, 2. looking for unnecessary information that can be cut, and 3. cleaning up wrong verb tenses and awkward constructions. Here's how it looked when I was done.

Throughout their 10-year relationship, the two have supported each other’s education and career goals. Both graduated from Cornell University, Cosby with a degree in chemistry and Jones with multiple degrees in accounting, mathematics and psychology. Soon after, Wilson realized that he did not want to pursue a career in chemistry. He enrolled in NYU to earn another bachelor’s degree, this one in civil engineering. Jones decided that she wanted to enter medical school and began taking pre-med courses at Princeton.

Here, bit by bit, is what I did and why.

Supporting each other through their education and in their career dreams has been a vein running through their 10-year relationship that continues today as Jones pursues her dreams of becoming a licensed psychiatrist.

The main clause of this sentence says "supporting each other has been a vein." Gerund subject, bland verb, abstract complement. I liked what the writer was trying to say here, but she failed to pull it off. So, rather than structure the whole sentence in service to the "vein" idea, I figured it was better to make "supporting" an action instead of a subject: "They have supported each other."

The clause "... that continues today as Jones pursues her dreams of becoming a licensed psychiatrist" contains some worthwhile information -- Jones is working toward a new goal and Wilson's still supporting her. But all that will become clear in the sentences that follow. And in an already unwieldy sentence, the clause was doing more harm than good. So I cut it and let the facts speak for themselves.

The next sentence was a mess:

After graduating from the New York-based Cornell University where Wilson earned a degree in chemistry and Jones earning multiple degrees in accounting, mathematics and psychology, Wilson realized that he did not want to pursue a career in chemistry.

The tense shift is the most glaring problem: "where Wilson earned and Jones earning." But the structure here is bad, too. There's a ton of info crammed into that subordinate clause "After graduating ..." The sentence is supposed to be about Wilson, but writer also used this "after" clause as a place to cram in some info about Jones. It's just too much. So I broke it up into two sentences, one about their education (Both graduated from Cornell University, Wilson with a degree in chemistry and Jones with multiple degrees in accounting, mathematics and psychology) and the other sentence about Wilson's decision (Soon after, Wilson realized that he did not want to pursue a career in chemistry).

The next sentence was almost fine:
He enrolled in NYU to earn another bachelor degree in civil engineering.

I changed bachelor degree to "bachelor's" -- mainly because that's our style. But there was a logic problem, too. "Another bachelor's degree in civil engineering" suggests he already held a civil engineering degree. That wasn't what the writer meant, so I inserted "this one in" for clarity, ending up with: He enrolled in NYU to earn another bachelor's degree, this one in civil engineering.

The final sentence was structured okay, but contained some lard:

During this period, Jones decided that she wanted to enter medical school and thus began taking pre-med courses at Princeton.

"During this period" is unnecessary -- not worth the extra words. And "thus," in my humble opinion, has no business in a feature article. Out it went.

Little fixes aside, this passage mostly needed its sentences broken up. And when you see how making a gerund like "supporting" into a real verb like "support," and when you see how information in an "after" clause can be made into a separate sentence, breaking sentences up is very easy to do.

* I disguised the passage by changing some details.

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2 comments:

8'FED said...

I had a go without looking at your answers, just so we could compare the output of a professional editor with that of some completely untrained guy with maybe a small amount of talent. Here's what I had.

***

Supporting each other as they pursue their ambitions has been a vein running through their 10-year relationship, both in their education and their careers. This continues today as Jones pursues her dreams of becoming a licensed psychiatrist.

Wilson earned a degree in chemistry and Jones multiple degrees in accounting, mathematics and psychology from Cornell University in New York. After graduating, Wilson realized he didn't want to pursue a chemistry career, so he enrolled in NYU for another bachelor degree in civil engineering. In the same period, Jones decided she wanted to enter medical school, and so began taking pre-med courses at Princeton.


***

I was more reluctant to make big structural changes, but felt that in such a complex paragraph, trimming off a few unnecessary syllables that I did not want was a good idea.

What does all this tell you about my ability to edit?

June Casagrande said...

Yours definitely reads better than the original. But you're right that it takes some gall to start tinkering with the writer's ideas. But when the writer's idea boils down to "supporting has been a vein," well, that's when I get really comfortable taking liberties with others' work. (It took years to get here.)

And it's true that, when in doubt, it's always better to leave the writer's words as written than to risk inserting errors/wrong meaning. Err on the side of caution and all that.

Still, interesting to see in your edit how, when faced with unwieldy prose, just breaking up sentences can help!

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