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Copyediting Is Problem Solving

Horses drinking in Astrakhan Oblast. Alexey V. Kurochkin, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons.

The sentence (suitably disguised for confidentiality) stopped me in my tracks: "The absence of pregnancy and lactation may explain the lower average morbidity in stallions than in mares." The meaning was clear, but something about it struck me as odd. I couldn't put my finger on it first, but after some thought zoomed in on "The absence of pregnancy and lactation." True, stallions don't become pregnant. My immediate thought was that male seahorses do become pregnant. My wandering mind next served up a striking image of a pregnant stallion.

Hold your horses, I said to myself, you need a break. I arose from my chair and paced up and down, thinking of nothing in particular. I have found that walking stills the mind, allowing ideas to bubble up from beneath. After a few rounds of mindless pacing, I resumed my seat. Should I leave the sentence alone? Was I overthinking this? Perhaps I should just highlight the sentence, move on, and return to it later? And then it hit me. I had a solution.

I turned the sentence around: "Pregnancy and lactation may explain the higher average morbidity in mares than in stallions." The sentence communicates directly in fewer words without resorting to shadowy absences. The only question was whether the shift in emphasis from morbidity in stallions to morbidity in mares posed a problem. I read the paragraph again and decided that the relative morbidities were what mattered, not the individual morbidities. Whether the sentence served up a stallion or a mare first was irrelevant. I flagged the change for the author, who agreed with it. (If the shift in emphasis had mattered, I would've left the sentence alone. The meaning is clear enough.)

Copyeditors are careful not to disrupt the author's writing by making unnecessary changes. In scientific writing, clarity is not just necessary but critical. Wordiness is the enemy of clarity. It envelops ideas like a fog and can slow down their flow to a standstill. The scientific copyeditor has a license to kill wordiness. If it's skillfully done, the author will be pleased with the result—even if his sentence has been turned upside down in the process.


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