Sloppy copy – and how to fix it

Sloppy copy – and how to fix it


When I edited magazines I came to hate a certain kind of writer who submitted what I called sloppy copy. Such copy had a million tiny annoyances secreted within it, such as too many spaces between sentences, or words randomly capitalised mid-sentence (a.k.a. German Noun Syndrome), or the incorrect type of dashes. There are many other examples but all were caused by carelessness, at best, and lazy indifference, at worst.

I had to fix each and every annoyance and I had better things to do with my time. Crucially, sloppy copy made me much less likely to hire that writer again.

This month’s Technophobia not only looks at some things that constitute sloppy copy but also explains how to fix it using tools built into most word processors.

All about invisibles

Many editors have invisibles turned on at all times in their word processor. Sometimes invisibles are referred to as non-printing characters, or formatting characters, and that might explain what they are.

To turn on invisibles you’ll need to click an icon on your toolbar or the Home ribbon that looks like a backwards P. Technically called a pilcrow, in a word processor this symbol represents a paragraph break – which is to say, it’s a symbol appears at the end of a paragraph when invisibles are turned on and it indicates where that paragraph ends and a new line should begin.

As you might’ve grasped, invisibles are things like spaces and tabs that we type all the time and that are part of a document in addition to words. When invisibles are switched on, spaces are represented as small dots between words, while tabs are shown as a right-facing arrow. By viewing invisibles an editor can spot instantly if somebody has typed two or more spaces between a sentence, as just one example, because two or more space symbols will appear there.

Spaced out

Let’s start by dealing with those errant spaces between sentences. This upsets the formatting when the page is laid out, or put online, because it means justified text won’t display correctly.

The Find and Replace tool can be used to automatically repair such errors. To bring this up, tap the Ctrl+F key (Cmd+F on a Mac). A dialogue box should appear although if you have a modern version of Word you’ll need to jump through an additional hoop – click the tiny arrow to the right of the magnifying glass icon in the search box, and select Advanced Find. If using a Mac, click the Edit menu, and then Find > Advanced Find and Replace.

Click the Replace tab in the dialogue box and, in the Find What text area, tap the spacebar twice. In the Replace With box, type a single space. Simple, eh? Now click the Replace All button, and all the double-spaces will be fixed in one fell swoop.

However, you might be the kind of writer who inserts even more than two spaces between sentences (grrr!). Spaces sometimes appear elsewhere too. One writer I worked with inserted around 10 spaces at the end of every paragraph. I never worked out why but, again, this can cause havoc when the page is laid-out or turned into a web page. Luckily, you can use the above trick to eradicate any number of unwanted spaces – just click the Replace All button again, and again, until eventually you’re told there are no examples remaining.

Another error is the insertion of a space at the start of a paragraph. This will mean that particular paragraph will be shifted a nudge to the right compared to the others, making things look odd.

Again, the Find and Replace tool can help. Start by clicking the More button, which will show a range of additional options, then click in the Find What box. Delete anything that’s there, then click the Special button at the bottom. From the pop-up list that appears, select Paragraph Mark. This will insert ^p. Type a space straight after this. Click in the Replace With text area and repeat the steps above to insert a Paragraph Mark, but this time DON’T add a space after ^p. Then click Replace All, and again press it more times until you’re told no further examples can be found.

Watch out for spaces accidentally inserted before full stops too. To deal with them, just type a space then a full stop in the Find What box, and then a single full stop in the Replace With box. Then hit Replace All.

Unfortunately, I don’t have space here to explain how these tricks work but they’re simpler than they might seem. Just consider how invisibles appear on the page.

Indenting and tabs

Copy on the printed page is typically a series of paragraphs, with each paragraph initially indented with a tab. This column is a perfect example. Compare that to copy encountered online, where the rule is typically that paragraphs are separated by a blank line.

You can help your editor significantly by anticipating these requirements.

If writing for print beware of Word’s tendency to automatically indent paragraphs. You might think Word is automatically inserting a tab when it does this, but it isn’t, and this will annoy your editor because the alleged tabs disappear when it comes time for layout by a designer. To turn off automatic indenting in Word, click the File ribbon, then Options. In the dialogue box that appears, click the Proofing entry in the list, and then the AutoCorrect Options button. Then click the Autoformat As You Type tab, and remove the tick alongside Set Left- and First-Indent With Tabs and Backspaces.

On a Mac, tap the Cmd+comma keys, click the AutoCorrect icon in the dialogue box that appears, select the AutoFormat As You Type, and remove the tick alongside Indent With Tab or Backspace.

From now on you’ll need to tap the Tab key at the start of each new line.

If writing for online, ensure you actually insert two paragraph breaks between each paragraph. Once again, Word sometimes pretends to do this doesn’t really. To stop Word pretending to do so, right-click on the page, select Paragraph from the menu that appears, and in the dialog box look for the Spacing heading near the bottom. Put a tick in the heading marked Don’t Add Space Between Paragraphs Of The Same Style, and click the OK button.

Other irritations

To fix any random capitalisation of words within a sentence, select the sentence (not including its initial capital), then click the Change Case button within the Font section of the Home ribbon – the icon reads Aa – and click lowercase. Note that this will also switch proper nouns in the sentence to lower case, so you’ll need to go back and fix those if necessary.

Ensure you type an en dash should you want to insert a dash, and not a hyphen (-) or, even worse, two hyphens (–). Again, if you type either the editor will have to fix them. For once Word is helpful here and usually automatically turns two hyphens into an en dash. If it doesn’t you can type one by holding down Ctrl and Alt while tapping the hyphen key. On a Mac, type Alt+hyphen.

Try to avoid using italic text because it may well be lost when the document is moved to the designer’s layout software, or uploaded to the CMS. However, if you absolutely must use italics, pass a comment to the editor within the copy to let him/her know. Passing comments in this way can be useful in all kinds of circumstances but key is that such notes must be removed before layout, so need to be extremely visible to the editor. I usually surround the comment with a couple of asterisks ***like this***, and also draw over the comment with the highlighter tool on the Home ribbon.

Finally, watch out for manual line breaks, which can appear if you accidentally hold down Shift while hitting the enter key at the end of a paragraph. They might also appear sometimes in text copied and pasted from a web page. Again, these can mess-up the formatting within page layout software, or when the copy is used online. If you have invisibles turned on, manual line breaks appear as a curled arrow pointing left. They should be deleted and replaced with a paragraph mark using the Find and Replace dialogue box – click within the Find What text box, then click the Special button and select Manual Line Break. Select within the Replace With text box and select Paragraph Mark from the Special list. Then click Replace All.