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Tag: proofreading

The Economics of Proofreading

by MDY

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.


Style and Tone 101: All writing is dialogue

by MDY

What do I mean by this? I mean that all writing – or at least effective writing – is meant to be read. One of my lecturers once said that unread writing is like auto-erotic stimulation: you may find it enjoyable, but nothing will come of it in the long run. When someone says a book or poem “spoke to me”, that’s what they’re unconsciously alluding to: the visceral dialogue of the spirit conducted by the most powerful of words. The most important part of controlling the style and tone of your writing is understanding that all writing is dialogue – even if the reader can’t “talk back” to your face. Except in the Comments section.

If it’s a dialogue, who are you talking to?

No matter what you’re writing, you should have an idea of who your “reader” is. Of course, anyone can read what you write. But you should have a clear idea of who your writing is aimed at. Some people call this your “target audience” but that just makes me think of homing missiles and lots of clean-up in the morning. And it’s hard to imagine an “audience” – much easier, I find, to think of specific people. In the case of this blog, I’m writing for a specific group of friends with interests and personalities that I’m familiar with (which makes things a bit easier and more enjoyable than usual).

In most cases, however, I don’t have actual people in mind, so I come up with make-believe people who might read my work (a fertile imagination helps). Then I imagine myself talking to them. I adopt that conversational style in how I then go about my writing. Words are as strong when spoken as they are on paper. If you don’t believe me, try reading your (or others’) work out loud. You’ll see what I mean.

You should also try to imagine how your “reader” would respond when they read your work. As Atticus Finch said, put yourself in the other person’s shoes and try to see things from their perspective. You’ll then be better able to judge when things sound right and when they sound…well, broken. If writing’s a dialogue, consider these two examples of writing with the wrong people in mind:

Mark then did write for PR firms, and science-y magazines,
Always meeting deadlines and delivering fine prose.
His bosses testified that he would always have the means
To clinch the interview and  see the copy to its close. – The CV of the Writer


Subjects H1 and H2 first acquired by Nazgul 5 on trajectory towards outpost 3 (codename “Isengard”). H1 and H2 under heavy guard by Alliance forces, including several high-value targets. Nazgul Company engaged H1 and H2 at 0130h but retracted after sustaining heavy fire from Alliance reinforcements (believed from weapons and mana-traces to be of Elvish descent). No casualties sustained. Outpost 3 has been notified of impending arrival and will move to contain and neutralise Alliance forces with all available resources. Threat level: High. – Lord of the Rings: The Classified Documents

See? Right content, wrong style. Definitely wrong tone.

To summarise: I’m tired and have had a weird week, so I’ll get back to proper technical tips (and self-investigative journalism) in the next episode. Keep read/writing,