Guerrilla copyediting Simon Heffer

This has become by far my most popular tweet ever:

But I need to say a bit more about it.

First of all, I must confess a stupid mistake: I got the book title wrong. This page is from Heffer’s 2011 book Strictly English. Simply English, which came out this year, is largely an adaptation of the earlier book, and this passage from Strictly does appear in Simply, but split into two entries (‘Fillers’ and ‘Redundant words’). Sorry for the mistake. I must have got confused during my googling.

A good copyeditor pays close attention to detail, and here I failed. Muphry’s law strikes again!

Secondly, among the replies I got were several people who thought the book was actually like that. They thought I was endorsing Heffer’s witty graphical way of making his point rather than showing that he ignores his own advice.

So, to clarify: Heffer’s book looks like this. The crossings-out are mine.

What seems obvious to one person may not be obvious to another. The sarcasm of “Well, he’s convinced me” wasn’t clear to everyone.

Thirdly, the actual cuts.

Some people suggested further edits that could be made, and I agree – this was just a quick-and-dirty job to make one point.

Other people suggested some of my cuts went too far. Again, probably true. There are shades of meaning that I might be blurring – though not, I think, important ones.

And not all my cuts were filler as Heffer defines it: I also cut waffle. But enough of them were filler to show that he, like many other writers of language guides, doesn’t follow his own advice.

Whether that’s a fault in his writing or a fault in his advice – or a bit of both – you can judge for yourself. Personally, I don’t think filler words are “unpardonable” and I don’t think you should cut every word that isn’t needed to preserve meaning and clarity. Redundancies may improve the rhythm or allow flashes of the author’s personality to shine through. Some of his sentences simply read better without the kind of cuts he claims to insist on.

And finally: yes, doing something like this is a bit cheeky. But Heffer is a big boy and sales of either of his books vastly exceed my retweets. He’ll be OK.

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  • Jeremy Turner  On September 22, 2014 at 7:59 pm

    Who or what is “Muphry?”

    • gnaddrig  On September 24, 2014 at 7:30 am

      Sod, tripped over his/her own law.

    • bratschegirl  On September 26, 2014 at 3:51 pm

      “Muphry’s Law” (an editorial play on “Murphy’s Law”) holds that any criticism of the speech or writing of others is likely to contain its own errors of usage, spelling, etc.

  • xpostfactoid (@xpostfactoid1)  On September 22, 2014 at 9:07 pm

    Arthur Quinn indulged in a shorter version of this exercise in Figures of Speech: 60 Ways to Turn a Phrase (p. 60):

    The baroque identification of eloquence with copiousness is so far from official twentieth century taste that scarcely a guidebook on writing does not contain an admonition such as the following: “Be brief. Do not repeat yourself. Say what you have to say in as few words as possible. To belabor your point is to risk boring your reader–or even insulting his intelligence.”

    Erasmus would not lack words for a reply. He would point out that the author of this advice had thought it so important that he was not brief, did repeat himself, used as many words as he dared, and had insulted the intelligence of his reader by contradicting himself in the process. “How shall tell what joy titillated the spirit of your Erasmus when he read your fooling passage?”


  • By Cut; then cut some more | Making Book on September 23, 2014 at 2:34 pm

    […] his book Strictly English, Simon Heffer also recommends cutting redundant words. Tom Freeman, the Stroppy Editor, took his advice seriously and applied it, in a meta-editing tour de force, to the page on which […]

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