Proofreading, Editing, Writing Services

Inspiration and Perspiration

© Bill Watterson

Writing is a near-sacred undertaking, as far as I’m concerned. But as with religious salvation, there are no easy shortcuts. Mistakes and potential mishaps beckon at every step along the path. Your initial spark may be inspired, but after that, the more drafts, the more perspiration, the better. I don’t care whether you’re writing a couple of lines for a fortune cookie or the text for an entire Master’s thesis; the impression given by a simple mistake, however common, is of something not fully executed, a flawed by-product of less-than one hundred percent attention on the part of the author, literally diminishing the piece of writing’s authority. Which, in the real world, may result in you losing marks, grades, credit(s), prestige, face, clients, or money.

So, are you confident you will pick up all the problems yourself? Not only are they varied in type (spelling, grammar, syntax, vocabulary, tone), but as the author, you are psychologically predisposed to miss them, seeing in your mind’s eye the words you had meant to write instead of those which actually appear on the page.

Not all errors, for example, can be fixed with grammar software or spellcheckers. A spellchecker won’t catch:

There, their, or they’re
Two, too, or to
Vein, vain, or vane
Peak, peek, or pique
Allowed or aloud
Affect or effect
Whether or weather

And English has thousands of such words (called “homonyms” or, more strictly, “homophones”). Let your guard down for a second and, chances are, one of these will slip through.

Likewise, punctuation: is it the 1980’s, the 1980s or the ’80’s?* “She let’s her kid’s run wild,” “she let’s her kids run wild” or “she lets her kids run wild”?**

Grammar checkers, too, are often overly literal, tending toward a strict interpretation of the rules. Of course, a knowledge of those rules is essential, particularly when it is more elegant, more consistent in terms of tone, to break them. I have used plenty of sentence fragments in this segment alone—do you think they have added or detracted from my meaning?

English is rife with traps, and that’s not even considering the different types or styles of English. Not everyone is aware, for instance, that when listing three or more items in a sentence, there is disagreement between such diverse sources as the Chicago Manual of Style and the New York Times whether to include a comma immediately before the grammatical conjunction preceding the final item in a list. To most people, this sounds like a minor issue, but as Lynn Truss warns in her excellent (albeit over-prescriptive) Eats, Shoots & Leaves: “There are people who embrace the Oxford comma, and people who don’t, and I’ll just say this, never get between these people when drink has been taken.”

Which all sounds scary enough on its own, without even mentioning comma splices, passive voice, and dangling modifiers. Alarming indeed. But the larger point is that you don’t have to worry about such things at all; it’s my job to know my gerunds from my infinitives, my participles from my subjunctives, and to apply them, where appropriate, to your work. And the only disquieting part of that is I might actually enjoy it.
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*It’s the 1980s (or the ’80s).
**It’s “she lets her kids run wild.”

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