Friday, September 14, 2007

"But I did proofread!"

Last week, my students handed in their first, diagnostic essays (Well, some of them. Apparently, I need to beat the concept of deadlines into their thick skulls). Since they're 17/18, and they're still technically in high school (though I teach a college course), and it's the first essay of the year, I actually wasn't expecting much.

And woo boy, that's what I got!

Out of like 17 papers, only 2 were anywhere near acceptable. When we were going through the postmortem, after I passed the papers back, I asked how many of them proofread their papers before they handed them into me, their new teacher who they supposedly want to impress because I hold an awesome amount of power over their immediate future.

90% of the class raised their hands. The rest looked chagrined.

Now, at this point, there are really only two options. They're lying to me. Or they really thought they proofread their papers. Being a charitable, kind soul, I'm more inclined to believe the latter. Also? I make the world's stupidest mistakes all the time. I honestly would not be surprised if you have picked out one or two already, and you better believe I proofread this before posting.

The simple fact of the matter is we're too close to our work. Your brain will fill in the blank spots. Often, Vivien will point out utterly ridiculous, entirely avoidable errors to me and I will be shocked because I honestly didn't see it. Then there are other problems. Many people don't know the difference between words like "affect" and "effect" or "advise" and "advice" or "then" and "than" and what's worse is, they don't know they don't know the difference--I picked those examples because they are my favorite mistakes to make. For years, I couldn't hear the difference between "then" and "than" because in Utah, the words sound exactly alike. Since moving back to Utah, I've had trouble picking out the difference between other words that never used to give me grief before.

I also have a problem with rambling. Have you noticed?

My point is, ultimately, you will be held responsible for every single word you write. It doesn't matter who "beta reads" it, and it doesn't matter who the editor is, or the proof-reader, or the final line editor. In the end, your name is affixed to the cover, and you will garner all the blame for any and all mistakes. So here are some strategies I've used in the past to avoid looking like an idiot (and the same strategies I teach my students):

1) Do NOT rely on Word to catch all the errors. That should go without saying, but somehow, it never does.

2) Read it out loud. Preferably to a sympathetic ear. Sentences that look perfectly find to you on the page might sound completely wrong. Also, if you read it out loud, you're forced to evaluate the words in new ways. In other words, you won't see what you're expecting to see.

3) Read it backwards. Start at the bottom with the very last sentence and read the sentence backwards. Go through the whole document like that.

4) Print it out (Yeah, I know). But it's different with a pen and paper than it is on your screen.

5) Walk away from it. You need space. It needs to breathe.

6) If you can get away with it, find somebody who is anal retentive and loves you enough to read it. I do ask Vivien to go over my edits--even the stuff that I write on my own and she has nothing to do with.

These are just the options I can think of off the top of my head. I'd love to see what other people do to make their work sparkle and shine!

--Pepper E


Dusk Peterson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dusk Peterson said...

I self-publish, so I make heavy use of beta readers, and I lean toward beta readers who do line editing. I've found that just using one beta reader isn't enough, because different readers catch different things. Also, sometimes a beta reader will make a suggestion and it won't be immediately clear to me whether this is just their personal opinion or whether what I've done is something that's likely to bother other readers. Using multiple beta readers can help there. (Though even multiple beta readers can be wrong.)

"Read it out loud."

Better yet, have a computer read it aloud, because if you're reading it aloud by eye, you're still likely to miss the error, but if you're only listening to your words be read aloud, you may catch something.

I use TextAloud ( to proofread my stories. My ear almost invariably catches typos that my eye missed.

Laura Bacchi said...

Great tips. I keep an "echo" list of words I know I overuse--and I add to it constantly. During a read-through, I use Find in Word to hunt them out.

Vivien Dean said...

I do ask Vivien to go over my edits--even the stuff that I write on my own and she has nothing to do with.

Even the stuff that just thinking about makes my eyeballs want to bleed...

Laura, we have that same echo list. There's nothing like an editor pointing out, "There's an awful lot of murmuring done in this story," to really make you paranoid about overusage, lol.

Anonymous said...

Great topic! One I can actually use, since I'm the worlds worst at grammar.

Quote from post: Sentences that look perfectly *find* to you on the page...


However, I can seem to point them out for others. Very annoying, trust me.

Pepper Espinoza said...

See! That's my point. I read this bloody post at least a dozen times, and "find" looked like "fine" to me! It's embarrassing, but I'm going to leave it up there as an object lesson. My eyes/brain expected to see "fine" and that's what I saw.

Michelle L. Devon said...

Excellent advice. I'm an editor by trade, but my own writing is very hard to edit and I find I make silly and as you said totally avoidable mistakes. I use all the tools you mention here most of the time and still sometimes after submitting something, I find mistakes. (ARGH!) Frustrating stuff sometimes.

Love and stuff,

Anonymous said...

I know what you mean about being able to 'hear' the word lol.

Here in Texas, some of those words all sound the same. Especially from someone that uses heavy 'Texan' lol.

Dark Eden