Tag Archives: editing

Getting it Mostly Write

Writing for any audience is to live in a state of continual chagrin.

Over a long and fortunate career, I have written a lot: a natural condition for someone talking and writing about rhetoric. How many readers I’ve had remains a mystery, probably one that is better left unexplored. Even so, books, blogs, articles and reviews have kept me busy. I suspect it is equally true for folks who manage a staff partly through e-mail, write a lot of reports, or respond to customers or clients. With all the practice, we might expect that communicating our thoughts in print would get easier. But I find that it never does. There is almost always a shock that comes with rereading a “finished” piece that has gone through the pipeline and emerged as less than the crystalline version I envisioned. Imagine lining up a set of cringeworthy photos of yourself that were all taken at the wrong time, then being forced to look at them every day. Writing for any audience is to live in a state of continual chagrin.

For sure, we need editors. But my experience is that most miss the same awkward wording or silly errors as well. We all seem to be too busy or lazy to be the kinds of close readers that catch an errant thought or a grammatical train wreck. For these reasons a lot of writers probably experience the equivalent of buyer’s remorse: the sinking feeling that what looked so good at first glance no longer scans so well. This fear is why some of my colleagues find it a challenge to let a manuscript go.  Who knows how many studies of epochs or individuals languish because their authors want to keep improving them. Alas, I’m not burdened with this worry; haste is built into my DNA.

My theory is that all writers are still in training. We never fully master the components of literacy. Even the most polished pieces can still reveal the equivalent of a shirt tail that is hanging out. This illusive quest for perfection makes it all the more fun to read an author who seems to have polished every sentence to a fine shine. Such writing or speaking is a wonderful thing to experience. But for the rest of us, there’s nothing to do but soldier on, hoping that next time we will do a better job of sorting out our thinking before it is committed to pixels and pages.

Letting ‘Fred’ Do Some of the Proofing

As the eyes strain with the load, it can be a relief to sit back and let Fred have a go at your mangled prose. 

If you do any amount of writing as a routine part of your work, you might want to check out what I only recently noticed on my home version of Microsoft Word. The program will read back to you what you have written, not with any great finesse, but with a degree of verbal accuracy. And that’s quite a plus.  I’m told that some other programs have this feature as well. And I am surprised at how useful it is.

Most of us aren’t very good proofreaders. If you are like me, your brain fills in missing words as a passage is scanned. It’s a good habit for speedreading, but a bad one for accurate writing. So turning on the “Read Aloud” function available under the “review” heading at the top of Word will put a male or female voice to work reading back exactly what you wrote.  And it turns out that hearing your prose immediately picks up missed and overused words.  My reader, who I call Fred, also will plow on if no punctuation exists: an immediate red flag. To be sure, Fred hasn’t a clue what he is saying.  There is no interpretation of the words, no useful intonation.  Even so, he is good enough at pausing at periods and comas, or reminding me that maybe three adjectives in a row might be too many.  And he will certainly trip over missing articles or–in my case–a whole collection of them that were never deleted as my editing evolved.

Fred can also speed-read, which is good for a laugh. You get to decide the pacing.

I write most days, and sometimes all day.  As the eyes strain with the load, it can be a relief to sit back and let Fred have a go at my mangled prose.  If you try it, you might be pleasantly surprised.  If you are not completely happy with the result, you will still know where your writing needs some work.