If you’re like me, each time you read your own writing, you find additional opportunities for improvement. I find that when you work diligently at revision, improved writing always results.
Revision (re + vision) means “to see again”. In order “to see again” clearly, it is important to rest your eyes prior to proofreading. Specifically, after your final draft, try to wait at least several hours before beginning the revision process. Most of us need this time to get what I call “a new pair of eyes”. Editing without rejuvenating your eyes may not lead to accurate or well-considered improvements because writers with “tired eyes” often read what they intended to write as opposed to what they actually wrote.
The revision process is most effective when it is conducted in layers. Layer one of editing should focus on overall completeness. This stage includes editing for relevance and readability. Layer two then centers on mechanics, including spelling and grammar. Layer three focuses on style. Skipping the revision process or attempting to proofread for all three layers simultaneously often guarantees mediocrity.
To emphasize the importance of clarity, this column focuses on layer three of editing, specifically editing for clichés, euphemisms and redundancies.
A cliché is an expression that at its birth was both original and clever. Clever expressions spread like wildfire (I couldn’t resist that one!), and over the passage of time such expressions become trite and overused. Readers often see clichés as signs of laziness and/or lack of creativity. How many of these clichés have you used in the last year?
blind as a bat
don’t cry over spilt milk
easier said than done
easy as pie
last but not least
Careful copyediting can catch clichés. Once discovered, clichés should be removed, rewritten or revised. For example, to convey the same meaning found in the cliché “as happy as a lark” without using that trite expression, consider rewriting it as “happy as a dog with a new bone.” Writers may also choose to revise, reverse or otherwise twist a cliché to emphasize a different meaning. Consider the following examples:
Actions speak louder than inactions.
You can teach an old dog new trick.
Got off on the right foot.
Here today, here tomorrow.
You’ve got to save money to make money.
An exterminating company once took advantage of this cliché twisting practice in its advertisements using the phrase “Hear no Weevil; See no Weevil.” If you’d like to exercise your brain, here’s a handful of clichés you might like to twist, but be forewarned that there are no answers supplied for this exercise.
needle in a haystack
pretty as a picture
sad but true
smart as a whip
under the weather
Euphemisms are another foe to good writing and a prime target for revision. A euphemism (from the Greek words eu – well and pheme – speak) is an expression that replaces a phrase the writer feels is too offensive or blunt. The problem with euphemisms is that these words tend to color or distort the intended meaning of the writer. Instead of saying that a creature died, for example, we often say that he/she passed away, went to sleep or if the creature was an animal was put down. “Plain” or “homely” has replaced “ugly”. And a “garbage collector” may often be referred to as a “sanitation engineer”.
What the writer must guard against is the tendency of euphemisms to confuse, complicate, or otherwise muddle the truth. When reading or writing about the unpleasantness of war, for example, we find a multitude of euphemisms: “bombing raids” become “surgical air-strikes,” “friendly fire” means an accidental attack on one’s own forces by one’s own forces or allies.
“Collateral damage” is a euphemism for civilians killed in bombing attacks.
If the purpose of your writing is to convey a clear message, anything detracting from clarity should be avoided. Because writing usually lacks the luxury of immediate feedback from the readers, the message in your writing must be clear and precise.
Here are five sentences that include euphemisms. See if you can navigate through the fog to determine the sentences’ true meaning.
Bill is in the twilight of his life
That man is seeing her.
The dog is a couple of eggs short of a dozen.
Mary is vertically challenged.
The boy lost his lunch on the roller coaster.
Redundancy, redundancy, redundancy! Good writing also avoids language that can be eliminated without creating a change in meaning. While many writers include redundancies in their initial drafts, third level revision provides an effective tool to eliminate these erroneous errors (oops, I did it again). Sometimes we include phrases that have already been stated. This error is common when writers introduce dialogue. For example: “Coach Smith explained that he was happy with his team’s performance. ‘I am happy with my team’s performance,’ Smith explained.”
Two words or concepts that are redundant are frequently called pleonasms. Examples of this type of redundancy include: 12 midnight, circle around, and absolutely essential. Here’s a brief test. See if you can correct the redundancy errors in the following sentences.
In view of the fact that time is running out, we should hurry.
The water completely surrounded the tree.
They are dressed exactly the same.
The firefighter descended down the pole.
Feel free to share your thoughts and ideas with the teacher.
For some writers, editing for clichés, euphemisms, and redundancies is an afterthought at best. But for those writers who are determined to improve their writing, careful revision for clarity culprits will minimize the potential for readers’ frustration and ensure a more vivid, expressive, and well-understood article.
Bill is old (better yet simply include his age). If your purpose is to describe Bill’s age, it’s best to be direct. Descriptors such as “old” and “young” are usually too vague.
That man is dating her. (While “dating” is neither offensive nor blunt to most of us, seeing may or may not connote a more casual relationship).
The dog is stupid. (No room for misinterpretation here.)
Mary is short. (This example is just plain silly.)
While on the roller coaster, the boy vomited. (It’s best to use the facts, plain and simple)
Because time is running out, we should hurry (Redundancy includes removing irrelevant words.)
The water surrounded the tree. (“completely” is unnecessary; if the water partially surrounded the tree say so, otherwise “surrounded” speaks for itself.)
They dressed the same. (“exactly” adds nothing.)
The firefighter descended the pole. (The direction “down” was already expressed in the verb)
Feel free to share your thoughts with the teacher. (This is a common error: “thoughts” and “ideas” are synonyms; therefore one of them is redundant).
Dr. Robert Stevenson is an Associate Professor of Journalism and Director of Student Publications for the Department of Mass Communications and Theater at Lander University in Greenwood, SC. He received the Distinguished Faculty of the Year award for 2007-'08, and the Lander University Young Faculty Scholar Award in 2005-06. Stevenson also serves as chair of the Lander University American Democracy Project. First and Formost I am a dad of two wonderful boys.