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Thursday, July 2, 2009


I know I haven't posted much about the agonies of editing recently. Wait. Come to think of it I haven't posted much of anything recently. Hmmmm. Well, anyway, as I was saying, I got this gem of a sentence today in an article about feeding an adult dog.

An adult dog's diet can contain up to 50% carbohydrates, including 2.5% to 4.5% fiber, according to the National Research Council, a scientific research unit of the nonprofit National Academies.

.............. let's take a look at that sentence. First of all, it's 30 words. Now 30 words is a long sentence in an article aimed at an audience whose reading skills are defined as basic. The company I'm doing this work for defines basic as high school level. But that may actually be a little high for the general lay audience of adult readers they are trying to reach. When I edit or write for them, I shoot for an eighth grade reading level. (Which has nothing to do with the level of the intelligence of the audience. It only involves the ease with which the audience can take the information in.) The reason I aim for an 8th grade level is that a 6th grade level, which is more accurate, takes more time than they want to pay me for.

But this isn't really about reading level (or how much I get paid). It's about putting information in a sentence the audience can use. Now when we take a look at the sentence, it seems there's some important information in there. How do I know? Because there's a really impressive source being cited. Come on, we all know about the "National Research Council, a scientific research unit of the nonprofit National Academies," don't we?

PROBLEM # 1: Who says this (or "says what," because by the time I get to the end of the sentence I've forgotten what I was being told)? And why am I supposed to believe them? Their name sounds impressive. But who the hell are they? I just formed a group here in Atlanta where the CDC is located. We call ourselves the National Citizen's Healthcare Oversight Committee. Now we're probably going to be able to convince a lot of people about what we say. Why? Because we're right here where the CDC is.

Actually, my group is going to be more successful. Everybody has heard of the CDC. Well, not everybody, but enough. Can I have a show of hands. How many of you out there know what the "National Academies" are, or is it is?

Solution #1: Actually, I happen to know a little bit about both the National Academies and the National Research Council. But I'd have to Google them to be able to tell you who they are and what they do. And there was a paucity of hands raised just a moment ago.

So the first thing to ask as an editor is does the writer explain anywhere in the article who or what these agencies are? No. As a matter of fact, that is the only time their names appear in the article. So the solution seems easy. If you are going to call on an authority to vouch for your claim, then you need to make sure your readers know who that authority is. So the first option is to tell them.

But, no. That's a problem because it's going to take up a lot more space than it warrants and that's going to take the reader farther away from the real point of the article: What kind of dog food should I buy for my dog? (As I type this, Yeats is staring up at me with a hungry look in her eye. But then, she's still a puppy. Puppies are supposed to be hungry.)

The second thing I ask as an editor is do we really need the attribution. The answer is no. This is not a scientific paper for a peer reviewed journal. The website where this article will appear has a major reputation as an authoritative source. And underlying that is a rigorous fact checking and medical review process. Plus they hire good editors who are going to check these things out, even before the article gets to those stages. So we drop the attribution and come up with this:

An adult dog's diet can contain up to 50% carbohydrates, including 2.5% to 4.5% fiber.

Now that's much better. The message is clear with nothing about the National Academies to get in the way. It works because the website and the parent company have believability.

And look at that. I've actually solved two problems. I've cut the sentence in half. It's now just 15 words. A manageable chunk of information.

Problem #2: Yes there is a problem number 2. How do you calculate and confirm those percentages when you buy dog food. And I'll tell you that elsewhere in the article the writer pointed out that coming up with this information is hard because you can't rely on the label. And right. The writer didn't tell the reader how to determine the necessary percentages. Oh, me. An editor's work is never done.

Solution #2: Ignore the problem. Let the readers do some research of their own. You of course know that's not the correct answer. The correct answer is to send the article back to the writer and ask for more information. Taking the attribution out was an editor's call. Explaining how to figure the percentages is a writer's job.

Unfortunately, I didn't send it back. I didn't have time, and this article is part of a major launch, which is scheduled to happen very soon. My decision to let the article go as is was based on the fact that there was enough information in the article to make it useful and interesting and that it was an important part of the launch and needed to get into review. That was step 1 in figuring out a solution. Step 2 was realizing there really isn't enough time to make the article complete. It needs to go into review.

I would never knowingly make that kind of decision with an article that would involve injury. But now you know how articles that are less than perfect end up in print or on the web.


  1. Thanks for this look inside your process and inside your head. nice place you got here ;-)

    Say, did I disappear from your blog-roll? ;-(


    Comfort Spiral

  2. If you did, I would be in a total state of dismay. No way will mthat happen. :0)