I'm editing a biography in which the author, who isn't a native English speaker, stated the following:

I started a business at the age of 21 and had no idea what were the most important skills I should work on.

This naturally didn't sound correct and my kneejerk reaction was WH-movement:

I started a business at the age of 21 and had no idea what the most important skills I should work on were.

Not the most elegant sentence, but barring adding extra words or removing existing words, isn't this grammatically sound? Maybe I've read it so many times that I've lost objectivity.

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    …what the most important skills were. Not even German word order would stick the verb after a second relative clause. – KarlG Sep 6 '18 at 22:34
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    I prefer the edited version, though if you are allowed to be creative I'd change slightly: I started a business at the age of 21 and had no idea what skills I should focus on developing. – S Conroy Sep 6 '18 at 22:34
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    @KarlG: So you're proposing ...what the most important skills were I should work on? Sorry, that sounds horrible. – CocoPop Sep 6 '18 at 22:35
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    @SConroy: Funny enough, that's exactly what I ended up with))) But this is for the sake of argument. I insisted that the edited version IS grammatically correct and syntactically acceptable and ran into some naysayers. Thank you! – CocoPop Sep 6 '18 at 22:37
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    The first one sounds better to me ... – Azor Ahai Sep 6 '18 at 22:42

The sentence should be left in the original words. It conveys the refinement of the writer’s thought process as the sentence proceeds, something that you can experience yourself by saying it aloud in multiple ways.

The key thought is I had no idea. This is an intense expression, which many a native speaker would follow with a pause and a groping for exact words. Your task as an editor is to help the writer convey what they thought and felt. Smoothness in grammar may actually work against you.

My guess is that the writer starts with this sentence and then goes on to tell about the specifics of how they learned. If so, you can set it off in quotes and follow it by something like “So I thought at the time.”

A lot depends on the purpose of your editing. However, if it’s a biography (or an autobiography or a memoir), it’s best to preserve the subject’s original voice. The reader is interested in the story, not the grammar.

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