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Your Guides to Excellent Writing

MBA final copyediting exam

Would you like to compare your copyediting skills with those of a group of M.B.A. students?

 

Each year I teach a course in persuasive writing for the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management.  As in the past, the students who took my course this year were bright, capable, and hard working.

 

They were required to write three papers for a two-credit course.  As they worked their way from one assignment to the next, they demonstrated a marked improvement in their persuasive writing skills and, for the most part, substantial progress in eliminating common errors in grammar, punctuation, usage, and spelling.

 

In one part of their exam I asked them to review a three-page proposal and to identify some of the stylistic techniques and persuasive strategies we had discussed in class – techniques such as using variety in sentence structure for emphasis and strategies such as recognizing the reader’s interests or concerns in the opening of a proposal and offering to take the next step in the closing.  As a group they did very well with this part.

 

I also asked them to identify 30 common errors in a given text.  Some students identified nearly every error; other students didn’t do so well.

 

Here’s the copyediting part of their exam.  Although answers are given paragraph by paragraph, you may prefer to find all 30 errors before looking at the answers to see how you did.

 

Correct the 30 errors in grammar, punctuation, usage, spelling, and proofreading in the following text.  (30 minutes) 

Adapted from the foreword to Keys to Great Writing

1.            What is the keys or the secret to great writing?

Answers     Answers to entire exercise

2.            Working as a part time college professor, writing consultant, and newspaper columnist, people often ask me that question.  Not always in those words, but in words to that affect.  How do I make my writing vivid and memorable?  How do I set myself apart from other writers?  How do I convey my personality, my point of view, my values?  How do I learn to write with style?

Answers     Answers to entire exercise

3.            Taking the last question first, I suggest you do three things:  read, study, and writing exercises.  Read good writers, study specific stylistic techniques and practice applying those techniques.  The first activity, reading, will help you develop your style over time (and offer you other immeasurable benefits and pleasures along the way.)  The other two activities, study and practice, is more intentional, self-conscious endeavors.  They involve analyzing and imitating proven techniques to produce predictable results.

Answers     Answers to entire exercise

4.            As many authors before myself have said, to develop your style, begin with simplicity.  The nineteenth-century English critic and essayist Matthew Arnold declared:  “People think I can teach them style.  What stuff it is.  Have something to say and say it as clearly as you can.  That is the only secret of style.”

Answers     Answers to entire exercise

5.            Say what you have to say.  Say it simply and directly.  To improve your style; begin by reducing your writing to its essential elements.  Then build.  Finally – with caution and at some risk - embellish.  Add flourish if it suits you (and if it suits your audience and subject), keeping in mind that flourish is not the same as fluff.  Even as you attempt elegance, your principle goal should be clarity

Answers     Answers to entire exercise

6.            In The Elements of Style, William Strunk and E. B. White warn the writer against ‘all mannerisms, tricks, adornments.’  They advice you to approach style by way of “plainness, simplicity, orderliness, sincerity.”  In On Writing Well, William Zinsser says, “You have to strip down your writing before you can build it back up,” and he offers his own “cardinal goals” of good writing:  “humanity, clarity, simplicity, vitality”.  In Style:  Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace, Joseph Williams includes a cluster of techniques for writing concisely as one of his ten lessons.  Those three books, read and studied by countless writers form the foundation for this book, and I want to acknowledge my debt to them, as well as to the many other sources I site throughout my text.

Answers     Answers to entire exercise

7.            In this book, I present five key’s to great writing:  economy, precision, action, music, and personality.  Economy involves rejecting the notion that more is necessarily better.  As Strunk and White point out, economy doesn’t mean that every sentence must be short, but that every word must count.  Compare, for example, “The shot that was heard by everybody around the entire world” with “The shot heard round the world.”

Answers     Answers to entire exercise

8.            The second key, precision, has to do with your command of language, your ability to use just the right word to capture your meaning, to say exactly what you mean, and to say it memorably.  Thats where reading makes a difference.  Reading helps you develop a good ear, and you need a good ear to know which word is best.  Compare elderly with old and ocean with sea, for example, and you’ll understand why Hemingway didn’t call his tale The Elderly Man and the Sea or The Old Man and the Ocean.

Answers     Answers to entire exercise

9.            Action and music, are the keys that add energy and vitality to your writing.  Action has to do with making your sentences tell stories.  It is created by using verbs, rather than nouns, to express your meaning.  Compare “The previously undisclosed evidence caused irreparable harm to the prosecutors case” with “The previously undisclosed evidence destroyed the prosecutor’s case.”  The first sentence is static, the second dynamic.

Answers     Answers to entire exercise

10.            The fourth key – music, has to do with the rhythm and the sound of language.  Sometimes you establish a rhythm, as Samuel Johnson did when he wrote, “What is written without effort; is in general read without pleasure.”  And sometimes you offer variety, as accomplished writers do when they follow a long, complex sentence with a short, snappy one.  Like this.

Answers     Answers to entire exercise

11.            The fifth key, personality, goes beyond language to the reader’s sense of the person behind the words.  To grasp the importance of personality, think of a novel you read long ago.  The one thing that stays with you – even after you have forgotten the characters, the setting, and the plot – is your sense of the writer as a person.  Your perception of the authors personality or presence is like a residue that lingers long after everything else, has vanished.  That residue is style in its most profound sense.

Answers     Answers to entire exercise

12.            There are, to be sure, other components of effective writing.  To be a competent writer, you must understand purpose, point of view, organization, support, and coherence, and you must know how to use them to your advantage, however, these elements have more to do with the craft of writing than the art.  Working effectively with purpose, point of view, organization, support, and coherence, etc. will make you a competent writer, but it won’t necessarily make you a great writer.  Your style, on the other hand, represents the essence of who you are.  It distinguishes you from every other writer on the planet.

Answers     Answers to entire exercise

 13.           Learn the five keys to great writing.  Understand the five elements of composition.  Practice the techniques relating to both.  Do these things, and you’ll be on your way.

Answers     Answers to entire exercise

 14.           And don’t forget the real reason you write.  Behind the language, beyond the techniques, is the greatest gift you have to offer;  yourself.

Answers     Answers to entire exercise

 

Answers to entire exercise, from the top  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Adapted from the foreword to Keys to Great Writing

1.  [1 error]       What are [1. subject-verb agreement] the keys or the secret to great writing?

Back to same paragraph

Next paragraph

 

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2.  [3 errors]       In my work [1. dangling modifier] as a part-time [2. missing hyphen in a unit modifier] college professor, writing consultant, and newspaper columnist, I am [1. dangling modifier] often asked that question.  Not always in those words, but in words to that effect [3. misspelled word] How do I make my writing vivid and memorable?  How do I set myself apart from other writers?  How do I convey my personality, my point of view, my values?  How do I learn to write with style?

Back to same paragraph

Next paragraph

 

Back to top of exercise

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3 [4 errors]            Taking the last question first, I suggest you do three things:  read, study, and practice [1. nonparallel structure].  Read good writers, study specific stylistic techniques, [2. inconsistent use of serial comma -- see previous sentence] and practice applying those techniques.  The first activity, reading, will help you develop your style over time (and offer you other immeasurable benefits and pleasures along the way). [3. incorrect order of punctuation marks -- concluding mark goes after, not before, closing parenthesis when the sentence is partly, rather than completely, enclosed by parentheses]  The other two activities, study and practice, are [4. subject-verb agreement] more intentional, self-conscious endeavors.  They involve analyzing and imitating proven techniques to produce predictable results.

Back to same paragraph

Next paragraph

 

Back to top of exercise

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4.  [1 error]       As many authors before me [1. incorrect pronoun case] have said, to develop your style, begin with simplicity.  The nineteenth-century English critic and essayist Matthew Arnold declared:  “People think I can teach them style.  What stuff it is.  Have something to say and say it as clearly as you can.  That is the only secret of style.”

Back to same paragraph

Next paragraph

 

Back to top of exercise

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5 [4 errors]       Say what you have to say.  Say it simply and directly.  To improve your style, [1. semicolon used in place of a comma; a semicolon should be used between two complete sentences or between the items in a series; a comma should be used after an introductory element containing a verb form] begin by reducing your writing to its essential elements.  Then build.  Finally – with caution and at some risk [2. hyphen used in place of a dash] embellish.  Add flourish if it suits you (and if it suits your audience and subject), keeping in mind that flourish is not the same as fluff.  Even as you attempt elegance, your principal [3. misspelled word] goal should be clarity. [4. missing period]

Back to same paragraph

Next paragraph

 

Back to top of exercise

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

6 [6 errors]       In The Elements of Style, William Strunk and E. B. White warn the writer against [1. single quotation marks used in place of double quotation marks] all mannerisms, tricks, adornments.[1. single quotation marks used in place of double quotation marks]  They advise [2. misspelled word] you to approach style by way of “plainness, simplicity, orderliness, sincerity.”  In On Writing Well, William Zinsser says, “You have to strip down your writing before you can build it back up,” and he offers his own “cardinal goals” of good writing:  “humanity, clarity, simplicity, vitality.” [3. period after, rather than before, closing quotation marks]  In Style:  Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace, Joseph Williams includes a cluster of techniques for writing concisely as one of his 10 [4. number 10 spelled as a word rather than written as a numeral -- numbers nine and lower should be spelled as words; numbers 10 and greater should be written as numerals; note that Williams chose to disregard this rule in his title, a decision that does not affect numbers usage elsewhere in the sentence] lessons.  Those three books, read and studied by countless writers, [5. missing comma after an appositive or modifying phrase] form the foundation for this book, and I want to acknowledge my debt to them, as well as to the many other sources I cite [6. misspelled word] throughout my text.

Back to same paragraph

Next paragraph

 

Back to top of exercise

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

7 [1 error]       In this book, I present five keys [1. unnecessary apostrophe in a plural word] to great writing:  economy, precision, action, music, and personality.  Economy involves rejecting the notion that more is necessarily better.  As Strunk and White point out, economy doesn’t mean that every sentence must be short, but that every word must count.  Compare, for example, “The shot that was heard by everybody around the entire world” with “The shot heard round the world.”

Back to same paragraph

Next paragraph

 

Back to top of exercise

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

8 [1 error]       The second key, precision, has to do with your command of language, your ability to use just the right word to capture your meaning, to say exactly what you mean, and to say it memorably.  Thats [1. missing apostrophe in a contraction] where reading makes a difference.  Reading helps you develop a good ear, and you need a good ear to know which word is best.  Compare elderly with old and ocean with sea, for example, and you’ll understand why Hemingway didn’t call his tale The Elderly Man and the Sea or The Old Man and the Ocean.

Back to same paragraph

Next paragraph

 

Back to top of exercise

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

9 [2 errors]       Action and music [1. unnecessary comma between subject and verb] are the keys that add energy and vitality to your writing.  Action has to do with making your sentences tell stories.  It is created by using verbs, rather than nouns, to express your meaning.  Compare “The previously undisclosed evidence caused irreparable harm to the prosecutors [2. missing apostrophe with a possessive form] case” with “The previously undisclosed evidence destroyed the prosecutor’s case.”  The first sentence is static, the second dynamic.

Back to same paragraph

Next paragraph

 

Back to top of exercise

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

10 [2 errors]       The fourth key, [1. incorrect use of dash -- appositive should be set off with two commas or two dashes, but not one of each] music, has to do with the rhythm and the sound of language.  Sometimes you establish a rhythm, as Samuel Johnson did when he wrote, “What is written without effort [2. incorrect use of semicolon -- semicolons should be used between two complete sentences or between items in a series] is in general read without pleasure.”  And sometimes you offer variety, as accomplished writers do when they follow a long, complex sentence with a short, snappy one.  Like this.

Back to same paragraph

Next paragraph

 

Back to top of exercise

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

11 [2 errors]       The fifth key, personality, goes beyond language to the reader’s sense of the person behind the words.  To grasp the importance of personality, think of a novel you read long ago.  The one thing that stays with you – even after you have forgotten the characters, the setting, and the plot – is your sense of the writer as a person.  Your perception of the authors [1. missing apostrophe in a possessive form] personality or presence is like a residue that lingers long after everything else [2. unnecessary comma between subject and verb] has vanished.  That residue is style in its most profound sense.

Back to same paragraph

Next paragraph

 

Back to top of exercise

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

12 [2 errors]       There are, to be sure, other components of effective writing.  To be a competent writer, you must understand purpose, point of view, organization, support, and coherence, and you must know how to use them to your advantage.  But [1. comma splice -- two complete sentences spliced together with a comma rather than separated by a period or semicolon.  The error also could have been corrected this way:  “ . . . to your advantage, but . . .”] these elements have more to do with the craft of writing than the art.  Working effectively with purpose, point of view, organization, support, and coherence [2. missing comma after etc. -- but here etc. is not needed] will make you a competent writer, but it won’t necessarily make you a great writer.  Your style, on the other hand, represents the essence of who you are.  It distinguishes you from every other writer on the planet.

Back to same paragraph

Next paragraph

 

Back to top of exercise

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

13 [0 errors]       Learn the five keys to great writing.  Understand the five elements of composition.  Practice the techniques relating to both.  Do these things, and you’ll be on your way.

Back to same paragraph

Next paragraph

 

Back to top of exercise

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

14 [1 error]       And don’t forget the real reason you write.  Behind the language, beyond the techniques, is the greatest gift you have to offer: [1. semicolon, a mark of separation, used in place of a colon, a mark of introduction] yourself.

Back to same paragraph

 

 

The average number of errors correctly identified by my students was 20.4, which represents 68% of the 30 total errors.  How many errors did you find?

 

Back to top of exercise

 

Back to top of document

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 Adapted from the foreword to Keys to Great Writing

1 [1 error]       What are [1. subject-verb agreement] the keys to great writing?

Back to exercise     Back to top of exercise

2 [3 errors]       In my work [1. dangling modifier] as a part-time [2. missing hyphen in a unit modifier] college professor, writing consultant, and newspaper columnist, I am [1. dangling modifier] often asked that question.  Not always in those words, but in words to that effect [3. misspelled word] How do I make my writing vivid and memorable?  How do I set myself apart from other writers?  How do I convey my personality, my point of view, my values?  How do I learn to write with style?

Back to exercise     Back to top of exercise

3 [4 errors]            Taking the last question first, I suggest you do three things:  read, study, and practice [1. nonparallel structure].  Read good writers, study specific stylistic techniques, [2. inconsistent use of serial comma -- see previous sentence] and practice applying those techniques.  The first activity, reading, will help you develop your style over time (and offer you other immeasurable benefits and pleasures along the way). [3. incorrect order of punctuation marks -- concluding mark goes after, not before, closing parenthesis when the sentence is partly, rather than completely, enclosed by parentheses]  The other two activities, study and practice, are [4. subject-verb agreement] more intentional, self-conscious endeavors.  They involve analyzing and imitating proven techniques to produce predictable results.

Back to exercise     Back to top of exercise

4 [1 error]       As many authors before me [1. incorrect pronoun case] have said, to develop your style, begin with simplicity.  The nineteenth-century English critic and essayist Matthew Arnold declared:  “People think I can teach them style.  What stuff it is.  Have something to say and say it as clearly as you can.  That is the only secret of style.”

Back to exercise     Back to top of exercise

5.  [4 errors]       Say what you have to say.  Say it simply and directly.  To improve your style, [1. semicolon used in place of a comma; a semicolon should be used between two complete sentences or between the items in a series; a comma should be used after an introductory element containing a verb form] begin by reducing your writing to its essential elements.  Then build.  Finally – with caution and at some risk [2. hyphen used in place of a dash] embellish.  Add flourish if it suits you (and if it suits your audience and subject), keeping in mind that flourish is not the same as fluff.  Even as you attempt elegance, your principal [3. misspelled word] goal should be clarity. [4. missing period]

Back to exercise     Back to top of exercise

6 [6 errors]       In The Elements of Style, William Strunk and E. B. White warn the writer against [1. single quotation marks used in place of double quotation marks] all mannerisms, tricks, adornments.[1. single quotation marks used in place of double quotation marks]  They advise [2. misspelled word] you to approach style by way of “plainness, simplicity, orderliness, sincerity.”  In On Writing Well, William Zinsser says, “You have to strip down your writing before you can build it back up,” and he offers his own “cardinal goals” of good writing:  “humanity, clarity, simplicity, vitality.” [3. period after, rather than before, closing quotation marks]  In Style:  Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace, Joseph Williams includes a cluster of techniques for writing concisely as one of his 10 [4. number 10 spelled as a word rather than written as a numeral -- numbers nine and lower should be spelled as words; numbers 10 and greater should be written as numerals] lessons.  Those three books, read and studied by countless writers, [5. missing comma after an appositive or modifying phrase] form the foundation for this book, and I want to acknowledge my debt to them, as well as to the many other sources I cite [6. misspelled word] throughout my text.

Back to exercise     Back to top of exercise

7 [1 error]       In this book, I present five keys [1. unnecessary apostrophe in a plural word] to great writing:  economy, precision, action, music, and personality.  Economy involves rejecting the notion that more is necessarily better.  As Strunk and White point out, economy doesn’t mean that every sentence must be short, but that every word must count.  Compare, for example, “The shot that was heard by everybody around the entire world” with “The shot heard round the world.”

Back to exercise     Back to top of exercise

8 [1 error]       The second key, precision, has to do with your command of language, your ability to use just the right word to capture your meaning, to say exactly what you mean, and to say it memorably.  Thats [1. missing apostrophe in a contraction] where reading makes a difference.  Reading helps you develop a good ear, and you need a good ear to know which word is best.  Compare elderly with old and ocean with sea, for example, and you’ll understand why Hemingway didn’t call his tale The Elderly Man and the Sea or The Old Man and the Ocean.

Back to exercise     Back to top of exercise

9 [2 errors]       Action and music [1. unnecessary comma between subject and verb] are the keys that add energy and vitality to your writing.  Action has to do with making your sentences tell stories.  It is created by using verbs, rather than nouns, to express your meaning.  Compare “The previously undisclosed evidence caused irreparable harm to the prosecutors [2. missing apostrophe with a possessive form] case” with “The previously undisclosed evidence destroyed the prosecutor’s case.”  The first sentence is static, the second dynamic.

Back to exercise     Back to top of exercise

10 [2 errors]       The fourth key, [1. incorrect use of dash -- appositive should be set off with two commas or two dashes, but not one of each] music, has to do with the rhythm and the sound of language.  Sometimes you establish a rhythm, as Samuel Johnson did when he wrote, “What is written without effort [2. incorrect use of semicolon -- semicolons should be used between two complete sentences or between items in a series] is in general read without pleasure.”  And sometimes you offer variety, as accomplished writers do when they follow a long, complex sentence with a short, snappy one.  Like this.

Back to exercise     Back to top of exercise

11.  [2 errors]       The fifth key, personality, goes beyond language to the reader’s sense of the person behind the words.  To grasp the importance of personality, think of a novel you read long ago.  The one thing that stays with you – even after you have forgotten the characters, the setting, and the plot – is your sense of the writer as a person.  Your perception of the authors [1. missing apostrophe in a possessive form] personality or presence is like a residue that lingers long after everything else [2. unnecessary comma between subject and verb] has vanished.  That residue is style in its most profound sense.

Back to exercise     Back to top of exercise

12.  [2 errors]       There are, to be sure, other components of effective writing.  To be a competent writer, you must understand purpose, point of view, organization, support, and coherence, and you must know how to use them to your advantage.  But [1. comma splice -- two complete sentences spliced together with a comma rather than separated by a period or semicolon.  The error also could have been corrected this way:  “ . . . to your advantage, but . . .”] these elements have more to do with the craft of writing than the art.  Working effectively with purpose, point of view, organization, support, and coherence [2. missing comma after etc. -- but here etc. is not needed] will make you a competent writer, but it won’t necessarily make you a great writer.  Your style, on the other hand, represents the essence of who you are.  It distinguishes you from every other writer on the planet.

Back to exercise     Back to top of exercise

13 [0 errors]       Learn the five keys to great writing.  Understand the five elements of composition.  Practice the techniques relating to both.  Do these things, and you’ll be on your way.

Back to exercise     Back to top of exercise

14.  [1 error]       And don’t forget the real reason you write.  Behind the language, beyond the techniques, is the greatest gift you have to offer: [1. semicolon, a mark of separation, used in place of a colon, a mark of introduction] yourself.

Back to exercise     Back to top of exercise

 

The average number of errors correctly identified by my students was 20.4, which represents 68% of the 30 total errors.  How many errors did you find?

 

Back to top of exercise

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