Monday, October 13

Editing: One Class At A Time

"Is it me or does there seem to be an epidemic of illiteracy and/or carelessness in campaign materials this cycle? Candidates who don't know the basic rules of grammar or spelling are legion." — Jon Ralston, Las Vegas Sun

No, Jon, it is not you.

While I cannot preach from the pulpit of good grammar without admitting an error or two or three on this blog or in the comments section where they occur too frequently (especially since the comments section does not have a post edit feature), there is an epidemic of bad writing and it's not limited to campaign materials. In the haste to communicate, candidates and companies are laying waste to the written word.

Newspapers are not exempt either. I don't know any reporters or columnists who profess perfect writing. Not anymore.

It seems all of us are so hardwired to mentally correct mistakes as we read, doubly so if we only proof on the screen. The net result is that more and more errors go missed in everything from government signs to the simplest letters. What I've also noticed occurring with more frequency is the propensity for other people to make additional errors while correcting the author's original errors, sometimes at a rate of three errors for every two corrections. And then, add to all that a whole lot of people who think they know.

Editing And Proofreading Your Work — 9 a.m. to noon, Oct. 18

One of the topics I spend some time on in my half-day Editing And Proofreading Your Work class at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas is undoing the damage that other instructors have laid before me. Amazingly, at least 75 percent of the students (many working professionals) who take the class profess to be above average when it comes to good writing, editing, and proofreading.

It generally takes two exercises to undo this idea that they know. The first is to provide them an in-class editing exercise that usually results in startled expressions when they self-correct the assignment. After five years, I have yet to have a single student catch every error, and that assumes they don't correct what doesn't need to be.

The second is reading fifteen sentences with two word choices, and asking them to make the appropriate choice. Here are five:

1. Damage/Damages from the hurricane totaled more than $1 billion.
2. This is the photographer who/whom I had seen earlier.
3. The family emigrated/immigrated from Russia in 1995.
4. Neither the reporter nor the editor were/was pleased with the article when it was written.
5. The publisher's praise of my article was entirely pretense/pretext.

The last time I read this list, the class was overwhelmingly wrong. Not a single student could profess to have all fifteen right nor did the class ever overwhelmingly support a single correct word choice. Not once.

So that is what I do twice a year. For three hours, I try to help 15 to 20 students improve clarity, consistency, and correct usage. Does it work? Sometimes. But even then, only at the pace of one class at a time.



Anonymous said...

Yikes! I also hear you on students suffering from the notion that they know how to write well. Students sometimes say, "But no one else has had a problem with my writing before." The implication for them is that I am imagining things. The implication for me is that they have had teachers more pragmatic than me who simply don't bother to deal with the writing problems.

Rich on 10/13/08, 9:59 AM said...


I wish every teacher would count errors made beyond the subject matter like you do. Now that would help.

But again, this assumes most even know there are errors. I've had teachers in my writing 10-week editing class. Um, good writing is increasingly rare.

I do know that you are a good writer, Mark. So I take some comfort in that there at least a few of us teaching them. :)

All the best,

P.S. I just fixed a word in this post. Ho hum ... always when I write about editing.

Bill Sledzik on 10/13/08, 10:21 AM said...

Bravo for your effort, Rich. It pleased me enough to emerge from my commenting slumber of the past six months. I teach writing every day, so I know what you're going through.

Many are quick to blame the speed of technology (and life) for the decline in writing skills. But also to blame are K-12 teachers who don't focus on grammar, usage or punctuation (many because they don't know the rules themselves). In addition, too many of our youngsters simply don't read.

Wanted to add a plug for Dan Santow's "Word Wise" blog. Tell your students to put him on the feeder:

Anonymous said...

As one of Rich's students who does earn a good portion of her living from copywriting, I can honestly say that his class is definitely needed and can serve as a wake-up call.

It's too easy these days to fall into a bad writing habit. From laziness to the desire to write "in my own voice" to just wanting to make a quick statement, it all weakens the inner writing muscle.

I must admit, however, that some proper techniques just elude me - a quirkiness of being human. But I take the "when in doubt, throw it out" approach - rewrite the work to avoid that difficulty yet still get the point across...

Rich, writers of all abilities and capabilities should take a class just like yours at least once a year to keep the pervasive kudzu of bad writing from rooting too deep.

[Disclaimer: this posting is made on the fly and in first draft mode. Author doesn't take any responsibility whatsoever and blames all errors on her dancing rabbit :) ]

Rich on 10/14/08, 9:06 AM said...


So kind of you to say that I inspired your first comment in some time. I do agree with you that a stronger emphasis on core skill sets in K-12 is needed. Perhaps too much time is being dedicated to life skills and what not. It's an important point.

Although I didn't think of it when I was writing this post, it would be nice if folks like me, you, and Mark weren't teaching university students K-12 skills. (Of course, my editing class is meant to be a brush up and introduction to AP Style.)

Then again, I probably cannot say too much about that. It was a university teacher who woke me up too (two points off for every error will do that).



I think the greatest compliment instructors can ever receive is to hear they made an impact. Thank you for such a gift.

As I think I said in class, we all have weaknesses in our writing (I sometimes drop words, for example) ... so the key is to recognize them. Also, be careful to use omission too much; we never learn unless we strive to overcome personal challenges.

And, lastly, don't worry about disclaimers here. Comment sections are often on the fly and one of the few areas I will never deploy a red pen. ;)



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