Bottom line up front



One principle we use at work in editing instructions, memos, manuals, notices, and letters is to place the bottom line up front (we call it the BLUF, the acronym for “bottom line up front”).

It’s similar to a principle I was taught in journalistic writing: place the essential information of a news story—who, what, where, when, and why (the 5 W’s) in the first paragraph. The purpose was twofold: give the reader the most important information first and make it easy for an editor to shorten the story (if the essential information is in the first paragraph, then the editor can safely trim content from the end of the story).

In business or, in my case, military communications, the BLUF tells the reader what is being suggested, asked, or commanded. If you’re editing material such as instructions, memos, or manuals, you may find that having a BLUF is useful.


Emphasizing tracked changes in Word

Microsoft Word lets you track your edits with a feature called “Track Changes.” It lets you choose whether to track formatting and how to display insertions, deletions, and edits by author. What it doesn’t let you do, as far as I know, is to mark which changes are most important.

For example, in one document I edited, I changed “in the event that” to “if.” I also changed, in a citation, “U.S. Code” to “Code of Federal Regulations” (or maybe it was vice versa). The first change was good, reducing four words to one while retaining the full meaning. The second change was essential, because the wrong body of law had been cited. The author would see both changes tracked, but I didn’t see a way to easily mark the citation edit as essential.

There are ways to do it, and I asked the others I work with and Liz Dexter of LibroEditing for ideas. Here are some of their answers:

  1. Use Word’s comments feature to add a marginal note flagging essential edits.
  2. List the essential corrections on the separate style sheet.
  3. Use Word’s highlighter tool to mark the essential edits, and indicate to the author what the highlighting means.

These are all good ideas, but each has a drawback, mostly when there are a lot of essential edits:

  1. If you use comments, a lot of essential edits would mean lots of marginal notes. A bibliography might have a dozen essential edits per page, and a dozen marginal notes might look overwhelming.
  2. If you use a style sheet, then, as one of the editors pointed out, the author might not read the style sheet. Another possible problem is that in a long document, displaying or not displaying the tracked changes can affect which page an edit shows up on.
  3. If you use highlighting, that can clutter a document too and can overlap if there is more than one essential edit in the same spot.

The editors decided to try different methods. Do you have a better way, or do you see other benefits or drawbacks to any of the methods? If so, please leave a comment.</>

Real Quotations: Compassionate communicator


A new quote on my website with pictures of the source:

“No matter where you are, be there; give it your all and steward the portion you’ve been given. No matter what you do, do it well. There’s a degree of human character you can develop that will spill over into human excellence. In that process of giving back, you become transformed.”

“Compassionate Communicator,” Joyce Serdinsky, BA ’12
Invention, Summer 2018, page 13


I misspelled misspellings in all capital letters on purpose.

Today is Easter, 2018. Last night I went to the Easter vigil at my church—a beautiful service, but hard on an editor. The printed order of worship contained the word SOLENMN in all capital letters. The misspelling wasn’t half as distressing as knowing a likely contributing cause: Microsoft Word’s default spellcheck setting of “Ignore words in UPPERCASE.”

If you’re using Microsoft Word, you can find this setting under the proofing options. I solenmnly urge you to turn it off.

Geoff Hart’s archive

I just discovered Geoff Hart’s archive of articles and essays. I’m glad his material is available to read even though it is mostly 10 to 20 years old: although some of the material, particularly concerning computers, is out of date, the bulk of it is still valuable. A lot of the pieces are about technical writing and editing. The essays are thoughtful and cover a wide range of topics, such as “Repairing Bad Author–Editor Relationships,” “Politeness in Editing,” “Part of the Problem?” and “Creating ‘Living’ Policies and Procedures,” and he has humorous pieces too, such as “Son of ‘A Programming Primer’: How to Speak Geek.” I pretty much devoured his archive in a few days, and I think you’ll find it worthwhile too.

Elements of Style (Illustrated)

The Elements of Style (Illustrated) by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White, with illustrations by Maira Kalman (New York: Penguin, 2005), 142 pp.

During my senior year in high school, our honors English class had one textbook: The Elements of Style, which at the time was only 12 years old (though Strunk’s original book dated to 1918). Since then I have reread it a few times, always found it useful, and not hesitated to recommend it.

In recent years, though, the book has been criticized as stuffy, pedantic, and excessively prescriptive. As an editor, I give first aid to writing, and even though I’m not a doctor, I occasionally write prescriptions for writing that needs it. I’m not against a prescriptive approach to writing and editing. There are, as the authors phrase it, some “experts in the art of bad writing,” and for them prescriptions are in order.

A few years ago, a friend gave me a copy of The Elements of Style (Illustrated), based on the 4th edition, which was published in 2000, and in December 2017 I decided to read the whole book through again with a critical eye.

The Elements of Style holds up well if you are willing to take advice from professionals such as Strunk and White. In chapter V, “An Approach to Style,” they present “gentle reminders,” not rules. The authors are against writing that is “stiff, needlessly formal.”

However, much of the book is devoted to rules, and some of them, such as when to use shall and will, indeed are stuffy, pedantic, and excessively prescriptive. Sometimes the authors appeal to Latin as a standard (I was taking Latin in my senior year of high school too), but Latin is not a good guide to English usage.

Also, some of the new material became outdated faster than the original text: “By the time this paragraph sees print, psyched, nerd, ripoff, dude, geek, and funky will be the words of yesteryear,” they wrote; that prediction was totally wrong, as 17 years later all of those words are still in use.

Finally, “Maira Kalman’s whimsical paintings,” as the Los Angeles Times called them (according to the book’s back cover), are an embellishment, nice to have, but add nothing to the substance of the book.

My conclusion, after more than 45 years of using The Elements of Style: Adhering to this book will not harm anybody’s writing and will in fact do a lot of good. If you’re an experienced writer or editor who can sensibly reject some of the advice, go ahead. But it’s still worthwhile to lend an ear now and then to a couple of professionals who were confident enough to provide a little book of rules and gentle reminders to assist us.

Editing with beginner’s mind

Recently I encountered the Zen concept of beginner’s mind. “The mind of the beginner is empty, free of the habits of the expert, ready to accept, to doubt, and open to all the possibilities,” according to Richard Baker’s introduction to Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.

“When we have no thought of achievement, no thought of self, we are true beginners. Then we can really learn something,” wrote Suzuki in that book.

As I begin my new job, this sounds like a good attitude. Yes, I have experience and expertise, but editing pieces of writing that are new and different to me, for new and different people, means I will need to learn. The answers and solutions I have applied elsewhere may not be exactly what are needed.

As I approach the situation I can be open to discovering the client’s needs, the writers’ needs, the readers’ needs—and what I can do to help.

I can see that beginner’s mind can be helpful not just in a new position of employment but in taking on any new editing task. I’ve learned to listen to people who know more than I do, and there are plenty of those. If I have “no thought of achievement, no thought of self,” I can approach new editing assignments not merely as one who makes corrections but as one who is “open to all the possibilities.” That sounds to me like a good beginning.