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February 27, 2010
Proofreading Pointers: Three Ways to Polish Conversational Writing
 

When proofreading a document, you want to ensure your message is clear. You have an idea in your mind, you transform it into words, and you hope the person reading it understands.

The words we choose are often too conversational. If you nonchalantly said certain words or phrases in conversation, your idea could make perfect sense and not disrupt the cohesiveness of the discussion. In writing, even if an informal tone is appropriate, little differences can affect your message's clarity and effectiveness. You want to choose formal words even amidst a humorous, witty, or casual subject matter.

In order to polish your writing, avoid these three frequent errors that appear in colloquial writing.

Which, That

Let’s look at the following sentence: “You can quickly polish your writing by looking out for these three errors that frequently appear in writing that is too colloquial.” (Note “that” appears twice in the sentence.)

When speaking, if you substituted the first instance of “that” for “which,” you could probably get away with it, and your conversation would continue smoothly. However, “which” is not appropriate in the aforementioned sentence, unless you change the structure of the sentence.

"That” initiates a phrase specifically describing a noun, while “which” initiates a clause in the sentence. Insert commas when you set off a clause with "which."

That: You can quickly polish your writing by looking out for these three errors that frequently appear in writing that is too colloquial.
Which: Look out for these three errors, which frequently appear in writing that is too colloquial, in order to polish your writing.

As you can see, the use of “that” begins a restrictive clause because it limits the description it prompts to the noun that it follows. The use of “which” is a non-restrictive clause because it prompts a tangent within the sentence.

Some   

I like to use examples from my own writing to show how easy it is to add imprecision to your writing. A thorough proofreading can fix these minor flaws. Minor as they may be, these flaws inhibit writers and their removal can transform your writing to a more professional level. Your reader will effortlessly comprehend what you intend to communicate. 

"Some” is often included in first drafts. For example, I could have written, “I like to use some examples from my own writing to show how easy it is to add imprecision to your writing.”

Tighten your text by removing empty words. The sentence without “some” conveys the same meaning and is stronger. Look for the inclusion of “some” and other vague adjectives in your writing. Delete accordingly.

Start to, Begin to  

Similarly, certain phrases that may be fine for conversation fail to add value to persuasive writing.

It’s almost always beneficial to delete the phrases “start to” and “begin to.” Other than word count, no substantial difference exists between the instructions “start to look for” and “look for."

Instead of instructing you to start to look for ways to trim words in your text that are ineffective, I’ll state simply: Look for ways to trim words in your text that are ineffective. It’s all part of the proofreading process.


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Stefanie Flaxman corrects business, marketing, and educational documents in 24 hours. She’s a writing consultant and the founder of Revision Fairy® Small Business Proofreading Services. Check out her free report and subscribe to Small Business Writing Consultant Blog to get free business writing advice. Don’t forget to say hello on Twitter!

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