the tamago report

Eggs benedictated

The Economics of Proofreading

by Mark Yeow

I witnessed a robbery on Thursday. A girl in snug gym-tights and a smug grin waltzed out of a bakery while the mousey shop-assistant plaintively yelled “you haven’t paid!” and “she just stole!” and people tried not to look. “What do you want me to do?!” barked the Lebanese pizza-seller next door when the small lady begged him to act, or at least to see. There was a moment, as the girl was half-way to the exit, when I could have interceded. After a while, you can taste the timing of these things; you come to recognise the sharp tang of a fork in the narrative, and the sugary rush or mild bitterness that follow depending on which way you dive. I calculated vectors, loaded a script; weighed up the risk factors (hidden accomplices; concealed blade) against the limiters on force (non-lethal, incapacitating under which parameters?). I looked away and the moment passed.

My friend proofread for me that night. She made additions and we had a wry, fragmented discussion on the dangers of verisimilitude. I rarely get other people to proofread my work nowadays, except when I’m unsure of myself. Even when sending things to my reader, I make sure to hold off until I am as close to a finished, refined product as I can get. This is because reading something for the first time is a precious commodity. Once a reader’s fresh, untainted perspective has met with your words, they can no longer assess them with that same pristine clarity that is so valuable to figuring out what works and what doesn’t. Here’s how this works mathematically:

Let x = the number of people who can provide useful feedback (erudite friends, literary critics)

Let y% be the level of completion/refinement of your work (with a vertical asymptote at y = 100)

So taking dy/dx = k where k is a constant (varying according to the profundity of the work), x must increase at an exponential rate inversely proportional to y. But because writers only ever have 4.7 people at most who will proofread their work, x is a limited resource.

Therefore, save your readers for when you have a clear shot.

Quod Erat Demonstrandum.

I often think of my readers – not my audience, but my core pool of assessors and guarantors of whom my big-R Reader is one – as shotgun shells. When you fire one, it can cause massive impact, but you need to get as close as possible to the target before you pull the trigger. And, like 00-buckshot, you can only fire a certain number of times before you’re plumb dry out of ammo.

So like choosing not to stop a robbery, your timing determines whether you win or you die.

The Arse of Letter-Writing

by Mark Yeow

I wrote a letter last week. An old-school, inked-on-paper, stamp-licked letter. It was a terribly fraught process, for several reasons.

Number One: I am highly insecure about my handwriting. In high school, I used to get taunted by teachers and classmates alike for the hopelessly matted kindling that my letters formed. I was best known for the compactness of my handwriting, which apparently bordered on the pathological. How was I, as a painfully utilitarian Fourth-Former, meant to know that writing a 6000-word essay on A5 sheets of paper – even if they were all I had on the train from Nice to Paris – would be viewed as lunacy by the Music Department and all its denizens? Today, as a result, I only write in caps when writing for other people. But you can’t write a whole letter in caps. Isn’t it ironic that you need umpteen letters to compose a letter? And somehow infinitesimally tragic too, that sometimes no amount of letters are enough.

Number Two: this letter was also an original short story. Usually when I compose on paper, I commit numerous faux pas; scratch out entire sentences or word after word; and, in around 42% of cases, am simply unable to finish the tale because I have plotted myself into an inextricable corner. I couldn’t afford to do any of this here, for obvious reasons. Fortunately, I had the entire story planned out in my head (only happens in around 7% of cases), and I am very good at converting a’s into d’s, b’s into p’s, et c. when I realise that pen and brain are not in sync. Probably owed somewhat to the pathology of my handwriting.

Number Three: You can’t back-up letters. What if my envelope got rained on? What if the ship’s crew accidentally threw the mail-bag overboard? What if the ship got hijacked (I had watched Captain Phillips several nights prior)? What if the receiving Asiatic post-office didn’t understand the address, even though it was in very neat caps? What if the address was wrong, or it went to the wrong flat in the compound, or the owner of the flat omitted to mention its receipt to its intended reader? Releasing a letter into the ether is a leap of faith, and despite my long legs I was always a dismal long-jump failure.

I don’t think the letter has arrived yet. If it had, I would have heard. But if and when it does fall into its recipient’s much-deserving hands, all this arseing around will be worth it.

Writing matters for everything

by Mark Yeow

The only extra-curricular tutelage which my mother sent me to in primary school was for English – creative writing, in fact. It wasn’t because I was struggling in school – the opposite, in fact. Before I had some literary rigour drummed into me by a portly straw-haired chap named Roland, my standard creative output in exams and homework tasks could be best characterised as “Minimal Viable Product”. The word count of these contributions spanned from around 400 words to two sentences. “Less is more” was never an axiom I struggled with.

My mother sent me to these classes because, as she told me often, a good command of English was essential to not just the schooling years – where its eponymous subject remains mandatory for one’s entire education – but also to anything I wanted to do in later life. She was insufferably but inevitably correct. From those classes I learnt to control tone, diction, and (to my chagrin) word count so as to best address the expectations of any situation, from the newspaper article to the morbid fairytale. I also learnt that challenging said expectations often yielded superior results: for one task, which required students to write about their favourite place, I unleashed a lyrical tribute to the solace and inner clarity only achievable when perched upon a toilet bowl. I think I got an A- for that one, but it’s the only piece I remember more than 12 years on. I wonder if Roland does too.

Good writing matters whether you’re a journalist or a marine biologist or a behavioural psychologist. It is a prerequisite to (but not determinant of) good speaking, and both are essential for communicating your thoughts and feelings and ideas in a way that gets them heard, acknowledged, and acted upon. Lawyers and doctors must exhibit exquisite mastery of their verbiage; check-out dudes and chicks need at least an intuition of tonal control if they’re to avoid being fired or fired at. My mother gave me, amongst other gifts, the gift of a good kick up the semicolon – to take writing seriously, as the only basic skill I’d ever need. I’m no sadist, but I hope to pass this on to as many people as I can during my lifetime. Because when everyone writes better, everyone understands everyone else better. And that’s where all other hope in the world comes from.

Thanks, Mum.


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