B is for Body Language

Jan 15, 2024 | Editing | 0 comments

Now that we’ve dealt with the importance of having an A-1 attitude to fixing our mistakes, let’s move on to the B that stands at the basis of self-editing.

No, not that “body language”, meaning the movements and gestures people and animals use to communicate with instead of verbal language. Here I’m using the term in a strictly literal sense, to mean the language—and the precise order of words—we choose to use for body text or the ordinary text of a document. Unlike the MS Word style “body text”, in this case body language is not about format or focused on outer appearance. It deals with the deeper level of substance. In other words, meaning and content.

Does your body text say what you want it to say in the best way of saying it? Are you using optimal body language—too many words, or not enough? The bare bones of body language are found in sentence structure. And the building block of sentence structure is word order. So, editing your own work begins with checking the word order of your sentences. The aim is to produce clarity and a logical flow from one sentence to the next.

Writers gain clarity by writing in the active tense, using direct word order. The subject (s) stays before the verb (v) and the object (o), which is followed by the complement (c) or rest of the sentence. Who-does-what-when/why/how, etc. For example:

The cat sat on the mat, licking its paws.

Active body language makes for easy reading, which I believe we should strive for whenever we write. On the professional side of my edidexterity, I often work on academic texts whose authors have fallen into the trap of reversing the active order—usually in an attempt to spice things up—and get bogged down in the passive tense. Just look at what happens with the passive tense:

The mat was being sat upon by the cat, licking its paws.

This sentence may look good at first glance but it’s hard work for readers. For starters, it’s longwinded, using more words than needed, including ugly auxiliaries. It  adds confusion where there was none. Now readers don’t know who the subject is (the cat) until halfway through the sentence.

Take my considered, edidextrous advice: if you want to communicate well, don’t put yourself in the risky position of confusing your readers. Knowing the subject is crucial to comprehension. It tells readers who or what a sentence is about. This example may be simple to decipher, but obviously it will get harder in longer, more complicated sentences, so can you blame your readers for getting impatient and giving up?

Now, don’t get me wrong! I’m not saying hands off, don’t ever deviate from the classic order of body language. Of course you can and should vary word order to create a change of pace. That’s fine, so long as you stay aware of the pitfalls of the passive tense.

Reduce wordiness wherever possible—split long sentences—and remember to create complete sentences (subject-verb-object/complement). Don’t  get. Carried away. Producing sentence fragments. Like these. They might be forgivable at times in fiction, creating a sense of urgency or spontaneity, but they can. Be annoying. Finally, delete all extra words, especially adjectives and adverbs. Golden tip: run a search in your document on “ly”. That will pull up all the adverbs you’ve foolishly used unnecessarily.

Brushing up your body language reduces clutter and improves clarity. Result! But hey, we’re not finished yet. Chances are that while you’ve been making these in-depth edits you might have introduced some tiny typos or spelling mistakes that will need fixing before the work is truly done. In the final part of this series, I’ll discuss how to do this closing round of corrections. See you there!

Featured image source: @elearncollege


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