Dealing with Pesky He/She Pronouns

My post last week about “what an editor can do for you” led to a question from a reader of my website. He asked why I listed proofreaders as female and copy editors as male.

In our modern, politically correct world there is often confusion about using the he and she pronouns in our writing. Everyone wants to be inclusive, but writing “he/she” to cover all possibilities is a little cumbersome and interrupts the flow of reading.

Some people use “they” to get around this problem instead of he or she, but that makes grammar gurus gnash their teeth. This use is considered wrong, as “they” clearly indicates at least two people, not just one lowly male or female.

To get around “he/she” or the improper use of “they”, many writers use both he and she throughout their text, but never cobbled together with a slash.  They will alternate the use of male and female pronouns by example, by paragraph or by chapter. This equitable distribution will keep you on the good side of both the politically correct and the defenders of proper English grammar.

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What Can an Editor Do For You?

You’ve probably heard the terms proofreader, copy editor and maybe even substantive editor, but what can these people do for you and your writing? There are many levels of editing available to you. Here’s a brief explanation to help you determine the type of editing you need.

The most basic form of editing is proofreading. The proofreader looks for typos, spelling mistakes and basic grammar errors. She also looks for continuity problems. If a company name is spelled one way on page two, the proofreader should notice if it’s spelled differently on page nine.

A copy editor will take your document a step further. He will look for issues with style, and may suggest better words or phrases for your document. Most copy editors and proofreaders will cover both editing aspects for you.

If you have a lengthy document or you lack confidence in your writing skills, you may wish to employ the services of a substantive editor. She will look at the “big picture” of your document and suggest large changes, such as adding, moving or removing entire sections. She may rewrite troubled passages for you.

Many professionals can seamlessly blend all three editing tasks. Regardless of the type of help you need, the editor should work with you to improve your documents. Think of your editor as your partner in creating clear communications.

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Seven Tips for Writing Training Materials

Writing training manuals can be daunting, but there are methods to help you create better instructions. Keep these seven tips in mind and they will make your task a little easier. 

Identify your audience before you begin writing. How much knowledge do they already have about this topic? Will they need every term explained to them or are they already experienced with the topic?

If you are writing for two very different audiences, such as new users and experts, consider writing two separate manuals or including separate sections aimed at each group. For example, you can have introductory chapters for the new users that the experts can skip over.

Design a writing plan before you begin the manual. You may wish to start with a summary that explains all sections of the manual, followed by a product description and materials required for the task. You can then move into operating instructions, with a final section on troubleshooting.

Perform a task analysis of all the things you need to teach your audience, and then group similar tasks together. For example, when explaining new software, group together all tasks concerning installing and starting the software.

Don’t be afraid of addressing the reader directly as “you”. Manuals are meant to be informal and the instructions need to be clear for the reader. Offer instructions in the imperative, starting with a verb. For example, “Open the document named ABC.” or “Attach part A to part B.”

Number or list instructions whenever you can. Formal paragraphs are unnecessary when writing instructions and can impede progress. Numbers and bullet are much easier for the reader to follow.

Be specific with all instructions. Don’t write, “Use a small piece of wire”.  Write instead, “Use 10 cm of wire”.



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Prairie Scribe Writing is a new blog dedicated to the following topics:

  • Technical writing
  • Editing
  • Trials and tribulations of small business ownership

Prairie Scribe is a Winnipeg based company owned by me, Susan Portelance. Posts will cover tips, tricks and tools for technical writing and editing.

As a small business owner, I can attest to the ups and downs of business life. I will share some of my experiences here for those who may be thinking of business ownership and for those already on the journey.




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Writing Resources

Do you panic when putting pen to paper? Do you think it’s impossible to come up with clever, descriptive words? If you feel these questions speak directly to you, take heart. There are a number of resources out there to help you find sharper words and become a better writer.

Good writing skills can be learned. I recommend a couple of books you can find at your local library. The first is probably the most popular book on writing ever produced, The Elements of Style, written by William Strunk and E.B. White. You may recognize White from other books he penned, including Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little. The book has fewer than 90 pages, making it a quick read. Don’t let the small size fool you. The authors pack an abundance of tips into this book, including help with grammar and writing style.

The second book I recommend is Wlliam Zinsser’s On Writing Well. The book’s focus is non-fiction writing and it’s a gem. It provides general tips and has sections for many genres of non-fiction. Both of these books will help tighten your writing.

If you also struggle with finding fun, descriptive words to pepper your prose, make a thesaurus your friend. In our electronic age, having an actual book is unnecessary. There are a number of online thesaurus resources to help you. I use when searching for better words.

I mentioned grammar in The Elements of Style. If you lack confidence in your handling of grammar, there are also a number of online resources ready to serve you. You can Google any question you have and will likely find a helpful answer.  I also refer to the Grammar Girl website,, with some of my questions.

Writing can be a dreadful chore, but if you make the effort and use the resources available to you, you might find the job a little less painful.


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