Category Archives: Uncategorized

When to use brackets (or not)

The use of brackets can guide readers on the importance of information. Brackets, also known as parentheses, usually enclose less important material in a sentence such as acronyms, asides, comments, clarifications, dates, definitions, examples and extra information.

As readers are more likely to skip over text in brackets, I prefer to avoid brackets and use commas or long dashes, known as en rules, to separate information. This is consistent with trends to minimise punctuation and streamline the look of text.

Brackets can be round (like these) or square [like these]. The Australian Style Manual for Authors, Editors and Printers (Snooks & Co, 2002, p. 111) explains that square brackets are “primarily used in quoted material to signify editorial interpolations or insertions made by someone other than the author”.

In work using the author-date reference style, references in the text are put in brackets. But to emphasise a specific author, not just the content, put the author name in the text and just the year in brackets. Compare these examples:

  • Daniels (2016) suggests minimising the use of brackets.
  • Brackets enclose material that is not essential to the meaning of the sentence (Snooks & Co, 2002, p. 110).

For more on the relative importance of information in text, see my post on Footnotes – not a fan.

Rushing to meet writing deadlines

Rushing your writing or editing to meet deadlines, whether self-imposed or external deadlines, can be stressful at any time of the year. It is usually better to submit a shorter, more polished document than a longer, unfinished document full of distracting errors. Your readers are reading the document in front of them, so make it the best you can in the time available.

Here are my tips from my own and clients’ experiences:

  • Keep it short and simple.
  • Focus on the parts that are most important.
  • Prioritise the many possible changes.
  • Fix up what you’ve got and don’t add more incomplete text.
  • If in doubt about some text, delete it.
  • Accept that it might not be perfectly perfect this time.
  • Take care with changes made at the last minute.

Be aware of the nature of your deadline. Is it a hard or soft deadline? What happens to the document after the deadline? You may have another chance to fix up the document after the first apparent deadline. Keep a list of items to check or adjust if you do have more time.

There’s no doubt that deadlines can be stressful, but they help ensure a writing task is finished, so you can move on to the next one.

Macquarie Dictionary – the authoritative source on Australian English

How do editors decide what is the Australian spelling for a word, or if a word is written as one word, two words or has a hyphen?

The Macquarie Dictionary is the authoritative source of information on spelling, hyphenation, capitalisation and common use in Australia. It is the reference on Australian English. The Appendices include a handy guide to punctuation (I’m brushing up on colons vs semicolons), as well as foreign phrases, signs and symbols, and more.

The Macquarie Dictionary Sixth Edition (2013) has a RRP of $99.95. Check online booksellers for a cheaper price including delivery. At over 1,700 pages, you’ll appreciate not carrying the hardback home. There are many versions of the dictionary available so check carefully before buying, especially online.

You can also subscribe to the Macquarie Dictionary Online at It is updated annually and with over 300,000 words and definitions, it can help you get your writing right. I haven’t tried it, but the audio pronunciations of 25,000 entries could be useful for some users.

Getting it right through fact checking

I’ve been reading The Fact Checker’s Bible: A Guide to Getting it Right by Sarah Harrison Smith, a former fact checker at The New Yorker, which is a great resource on the importance and process of fact checking. Getting facts right can prevent embarrassment, enhance credibility, save money by preventing lawsuits, and identify plagiarism.

The Fact Checker’s Bible discusses checking a wide range of facts including names, dates, biographical details, locations, descriptions, quotations, lyrics, maps and artwork – in fact, everything in a story or article.

The role of editors in fact checking work depends on the specific requirements of the job, and often the time and budget available. Editors may check all facts, some or none. Every fact can be checked or only the most controversial.

Tips for writers

  • Keep records of your sources and notes.
  • Try to check facts yourself.
  • Critically evaluate sources and check with experts.

Tips for editors

  • Be aware of facts that may need to be checked.
  • Ask the author for their sources and notes.
  • Ensure non-text material such as maps, photos and artwork is consistent with the text.
  • Check headings, headlines and captions where errors may be more visible than in the text.
  • Identify material which has not been checked.
  • Don’t assume someone else has checked it.

But what is right? A sobering line in the book is: “It is ironic that many of the best resources for fact checkers are not fact-checked to the standard to which checkers aspire”.

For more, see my April 2014 post on right and wrong in editing.

How to edit your own work

To edit your own work, you need to know what to look out for. Edit for overall structure and content first, then copy-edit or sub-edit to check spelling, punctuation and grammar.

Be aware of these mistakes

  • Be aware of your own common typos. Is there a word you always mis-spell or a keystroke combination you always mis-type?
  • Be aware of inconsistencies in style and format in documents written over a long period of time, such as a thesis. Use a style sheet to maintain consistency.
  • Be aware of work written when you are tired, stressed or rushed, and carefully check work written in these conditions.
  • Be aware of changes made at the last minute. These are more likely to have mistakes as you may not have looked at this work as often as other parts of the document.

More tips

  • Print your work and edit a hard copy, instead of on-screen.
  • Read your work from beginning to end several times, checking different aspects each time – spelling and punctuation, then references, then formatting such as heading styles, then non-text elements such as tables and figures.
  • Check it if you’re not sure. It’s easy to use your favourite search engine to check spellings, meanings or details such as dates.

The Style manual – a great resource

The Style manual for authors, editors and printers is published by the Australian Government to provide guidance on preparing material for publication. While originally intended to provide advice for government publications, it is widely used as a reference work for effective communication. 

The current Sixth Edition is a comprehensive reference of over 500 pages with five parts covering:

  • planning the communication
  • writing and editing
  • designing and illustrating
  • legal and compliance aspects of publishing
  • producing and evaluating the product.

Part 2 on writing and editing is the heart of the manual and provides best practice advice on grammar, spelling, punctuation, abbreviations, lists and much more. 

You don’t have to follow every recommendation in the Style manual, but it’s a great starting point to ensure clear and consistent communication.

Some practices have changed since the current edition was published back in 2002. When it is next updated, the new edition is likely to reflect trends towards minimal punctuation and include even more information on electronic publishing. 

The Style manual is only available in hard copy and has a RRP of $44.95. A great resource for all writers and editors.

Write for readers who are easily distracted

Academic publisher Elsevier’s new 8 page guide called Elements of Style for Writing Scientific Journal Articles has great advice for all factual writing. The most important rule is “write for the busy reader who is easily distracted”. Elements of Style says readers will use almost any excuse to stop reading when they encounter poor writing that leads to reader fatigue and frustration.

Sections in Elements of Style include:

  • Basic rules of manuscript language including tenses, grammar, sentences and paragraphs
  • Classic errors to avoid
  • Always remember your reader
  • Cross-references and figure captions
  • Writing and rewriting.

We’ll highlight more advice in future posts.

Read Elsevier’s Elements_of_Style_for_Writing Scientific Journal_Articles (Dec 2013).

What does et al. mean?

The words et al. are often used when citing references in text. An example: Smith et al. (2011) reported results from a survey of 90 residents.

The phrase is an abbreviation of the Latin words et alii or alia. Et means “and” and alii or alia means “others”. So the phrase Smith et al. means Smith and other authors and is a way of referring to additional, un-named authors of a reference.

There is no need for a full stop after et because it is not an abbreviation. Only use a full stop after al. Sometimes the words et al. are written in italics because they are Latin words, but this is becoming less common.

The words et al. should never be used in a list of references. The names of all authors of a reference should be provided in the reference list.

How to recognise spam – it’s all in the editing

How do you recognise a spam or fraudulent email from a bank or telecoms provider in your inbox?

Often there are a few little things that are not quite right. The use of the corporate image may be slightly wrong such as use of the logo, corporate colours or the font for the text. There may be slightly odd wording or minor errors in the text or email footer. These are all clues to look more closely at the email.

The ability to recognise spam or fraudulent email highlights the importance of editing in setting a professional image.

People don’t notice when it’s right, but they notice when you get it wrong.

Set up a Style Sheet to ensure consistency for your project

A great way to ensure consistency in your project is to set up a Style Sheet right at the beginning. A Style Sheet is a place to record general formatting and editing preferences such as dates and numbers as well as the specific spelling, capitalisation and hyphenation for commonly used words in the project. Depending on the project, your Style Sheet may contain people’s names, organisation names, or technical terms.

A Style Sheet is usually organised with a general section and then in alphabetical order. If it is typed up in Word, it can be easily updated. But even a handwritten Style Sheet is better than nothing. Keep your Style Sheet handy so you can easily refer to it as you write.

A Style Sheet is great for multi-author projects but is also helpful on long projects written over a longer period of time.

A Style Sheet is not the same as using Styles to format headings and text in Word, but both are ways to help ensure consistency in formatting your work and presenting a professional image.