Ask An Expert: Manuscript Editing
Here, we speak with Quality Control Editor Pete Marbais about his experience with our language editing service and his suggestions for researchers writing mansucripts.
What is your role?
Pete: As a Quality Control Editor, my role is to ensure that every paper I edit reads as though it had been written by a native speaker of English who is also an expert in a given field. At the quality control step of editing, we verify whether the editor has edited the customer’s work within the scope of our service and to the customer’s expectations.
Why should authors care about manuscript editing in general?
Pete: Everybody could benefit from having somebody review their work for weaknesses. Organization, field-specific content, structure, style, and formatting concerns are often difficult to address unless a writer has had a great deal of experience with a specific style guide or a specific publisher’s style sheet.
Language-related concerns can make an otherwise solid composition read poorly because of such issues as poor word choice, awkward phrasing, or choppy constructions due to misplaced punctuation. Not all writers may need help with organization, content, style, and the like, but nearly every writer can benefit from language editing. Language editing is especially important for writers, whether native or non-native speakers of English, who wish to publish their work in English-language journals that have an international audience.
Learn more about AJE’s manuscript editing services here.
What are the top difficulties in your work?
Pete: The following language-related issues often crop up; even the best writer may slip on occasion.
Dangling modifiers: A dangling modifier is a phrase or clause that does not modify anything in the sentence. Dangling modifiers imply an actor but fail to indicate correctly who or what that actor is.
Faulty parallelism in series: Lengthy lists or complex series of items may be difficult for a reader to understand unless every item is in the same grammatical form as the other items. If a series contains three items, all three should be clauses, phrases, or words of the same part of speech (e.g., nouns, verbs, adjectives).
Excessive subordination: Sometimes, subordinate clauses and phrases (such as clauses or phrases beginning with that, which, because, since, or as) can clutter a sentence to such a great extent that the subject and verb of the sentence cannot easily be connected.
Excessive coordination: It is easy to include too many details in one sentence when describing a process, a procedure, a device, or anything comprising several components or steps. This may occur when overusing coordinating conjunctions (such as and, but, for, nor, or, so, and yet).
Choppy sentence structure because of excessive comma use: Punctuation errors may seem minor or even unimportant, but improperly placed punctuation can lead to awkward phrasing, misplaced emphasis, or misinterpretations.
How can these issues best be addressed by authors?
Pete: Most often, the writer needs to determine whether an awkward sentence has a clear subject and verb. The issues noted above can make it difficult for the reader to know which noun is the subject, how the verb is related to that subject, and how any additional information is connected to the subject and verb.
Dangling modifiers can be easy to overlook, and in most cases, the reader will most likely fill in the gaps left by the writer.
For example, the following phrase is problematic because it reads as though the solution stirs itself: “After magnetically stirring for 3 h, the solution was transferred into a 50 mL Teflon-lined stainless autoclave.” Here, the dangling modifier is “After magnetically stirring for 3 h.”
The fact that the solution was acted upon, rather than performing the action, could be clarified by one of the following revisions:
- After magnetically stirring for 3 h, we transferred the solution into a 50 mL Teflon-lined stainless autoclave. (We performed the stirring.)
- After being magnetically stirred for 3 h, the solution was transferred into a 50 mL Teflon-lined stainless autoclave. (The solution had been stirred.)
Faulty parallelism can make a series of items read poorly, and even the most proficient writers will occasionally create a convoluted series.
This sentence may be clear to most readers, but the third item is not parallel to the first two: “Additionally, grapes can be used to produce grape seed oil (used for cooking), salad dressings, or for cosmetic products.” The third item, “for cosmetic products,” is prefaced by a preposition, whereas the first two items are not.
For parallel construction, every item in a series must be a similar grammatical construction, as in the following revision:
- “Additionally, grapes can be used to produce grape seed oil (used for cooking), salad dressings, or cosmetic products.”
Excessive coordination and subordination are often caught by Microsoft Word, which has user settings that can be modified to flag lengthy or wordy sentences for revision.
Sometimes, subordinate clauses and phrases can clutter a sentence to the point that the subject and verb of the sentence are separated by too many words or are not obvious to the reader.
In this case, the verb is missing entirely: “However, the draining site, such as most fistulas draining into the PA, which are frequently tortuous, thin and have a small shunt with no significant hemodynamic change and normal or mild enlarged cardiac chambers and coronary artery trunks.”
Here, “site” is modified by “such as most fistulas draining into the PA,” which is modified by “which are frequently tortuous, thin and have a small shunt,” and “shunt” is modified by “with no significant hemodynamic change,” which is followed by the second part of the series, which begins with “a small shunt.” There is no verb following “site.”
Adding a verb helps, but it also takes some rearranging to eliminate the excessive subordination:
- However, it is easy to observe such draining sites, as with most fistulas draining into the PA. These sites are frequently tortuous and thin, and they have a small shunt with normal or mild enlarged cardiac chambers, coronary artery trunks, and no significant hemodynamic change.
The following procedure is difficult to follow because the four coordinating conjunctions try to link too many separate components of the procedure in one sentence: “Serial 4-μm sections were cut for immunohistochemical analysis and run through an automated protocol, including heat antigen retrieval, and specificity was determined using appropriate positive controls, and the omission of primary antibody served as a negative control.”
Dividing each component into separate clauses helps. The first component can be made into its own sentence, and the second two can be joined by a semicolon:
- Serial 4-μm sections were cut for immunohistochemical (IHC) analysis and run through an automated protocol including heat antigen retrieval. Specificity was determined using appropriate positive controls; the omission of primary antibody served as a negative control.
Excessive comma use can lead to poor sentence structure.
In most cases, punctuation may seem to be a minor concern, but arbitrarily placed punctuation marks may confuse the reader, as with this example, “A safe, reliable, easily repeated procedure, that included five preparatory steps, was implemented, and was demonstrated to be effective, at determining the outcomes.”
Eliminating the unnecessary commas makes the sentence read more clearly. First, because “that” prefaces a restrictive phrase, it requires no comma before or after the phrase it modifies. Second, “and” is joining a compound predicate; only when a coordinating conjunction joins two independent clauses should it be prefaced by a comma. Third, because the prepositional phrase “at determining the outcomes” is not being used as an introductory phrase or as an interrupter, no comma is needed:
- “A safe, reliable, easily repeated procedure that included five preparatory steps was implemented and was demonstrated to be effective at determining the outcomes.”
Whether the author can address the issues him/herself depends upon that author’s language proficiency. However, even a highly proficient writer will sometimes overlook errors in his or her own work; because one knows what one is trying to convey, it is easy to mistakenly assume that one has communicated what one had meant to communicate.
In other words, the reader may not actually have the information necessary to ascertain the writer’s intention. For this reason alone, every writer can benefit from receiving help from an editor, particularly one who is an expert in the field and a native speaker of English.
Why should authors care about these particular issues?
Pete: If an author does not care about how well a sentence is structured, the reader may not be able to decipher the author’s meaning. This failure to communicate may lead to rejection by a publisher or, should the work be published, confusion on the part of the intended audience. Poorly written findings may be overlooked, as there is a great deal of content for readers to sort through.
In short, if something is poorly written, many readers won’t bother trying to decipher it unless the content is especially novel or related to their specific sub-field. Even then, readers have only so much patience.
Interview moderated by Michaela Panter. This article was updated 05/06/2016 to include the most helpful information for our readers.
You can learn more about AJE’s manuscript editing services here.