Common Mistakes: Overediting

October 13, 2005: Issue 109

There is such a thing as too much editing.

While tighter writing is generally cleaner, sometimes words or phrases that look dispensable at first glance are necessary for clarity.

Take the word “own,” for instance: It’s often unneeded. “Her home” reads just as well as “her own home” in most cases. But there are exceptions, especially when the word is used as a pronoun. Consider the difference in these two sentences:

These two architects longed to build a home.
These two architects longed to build a home of their own.

A similar case is “or not,” as in “whether or not.” The “or not” is superfluous in uses such as “Determine whether or not your project requires a permit.” But sometimes deleting those words leaves a sentence that makes little sense. Try it with this one, for instance: “You’ll probably need two coats, whether or not the package directions say so.”

We urge everyone—copy editors and editors alike—to think about how they might be changing sense before they hit the delete key.

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