or, How to Avoid Looking Like an Incompetent, Uneducated Moron

Proofreading basically involves checking a piece of writing for errors. The term originated in the world of publishing, in which a proof is a draft copy, often one that looks exactly the way your work will look when it's in print. Reading the proofs (proofreading) thus offers writers one last chance to correct their work before the printer runs off half a million copies and ships them all over the world. Eventually, the term came to refer to the inspection and correction of any piece of writing, not just those prepared for publication by a printer.

Now, everyone makes errors. When you're sitting in front of the computer at four in the morning, pounding away as fast as you can in an attempt to get that perfect phrase down before it evaporates from your mind forever, you're probably not paying excessive attention to grammar or spelling. There's no real need to be anal while you're writing, provided that you check for mistakes when you're done. You can take several steps to help discover the errors you've made:

  1. Use a spell-checker. Theer is no ecxuse for esays wiht speling erorrs liek tihs. Your spell-checker will identify such words provided that your misspelling isn't another legitimate English word (like typing 'whit' for 'with'.) Computers don't speak English, though, so you shouldn't blindly trust your word processor's suggestions--you still have to know, for example, that the first word of that sentence should be "there," not "their." Use a dictionary to resolve any disputes.
  2. Use your word processor's find function to locate other common errors. Certain vague words--such as thing, nice, and very--rarely appear in good writing. Search for these words and replace them with a more precise term. Also search for errors that you frequently commit: if you know that you overuse the word "however," search for it; if you know you often confuse your and you're, search for both words and confirm that you've used them correctly.
  3. Read it aloud. I know--you might feel a little stupid reading aloud to yourself like a child, but you'll feel a lot dumber when everybody notices your gaffe. When you're writing quickly, you'll sometimes leave out nonvital words (particularly articles like "a" or "an"). If you read your work to yourself, you'll mentally fill in those words and won't notice that they're not there. If you read it aloud, on the other hand, those omissions will stand out like crows in snow; you'll also catch repeated words, misplaced punctuation, and sentences that are just plain awkward.
  4. Have someone else read it. Sure, you know exactly what you're trying to say, but that doesn't mean anybody else will be able to figure it out. Find some brutally honest friends (everybody should have at least one) and get them to read your work. They will easily identify enthymemes, ambiguous phrases, contradictions, and the like. If they happen to be grammar nazis, they may also identify lower-level errors.
  5. Put it aside for a while. Lock the essay in a drawer for a while, or save the file and don't open it for a week or two. Then sit down and read it aloud. Sooner or later, you'll discover a sentence--or even a whole paragraph--that's so bizarre that you'll rack your brains trying to figure out what drug you were on when you wrote it. (Everythingians often discover this problem while node tending.) Revise the paragraph and, if necessary, put it aside again.

"Pah!" you might say. "Nobody cares about grammar and spelling anyway. As long as people understand what I'm saying, that's what really important."


Parable the First:

My father is a founding partner of a law firm in New York. Lots of young lawyers apply for jobs there, and he reads every single application the firm receives. He begins evaluating candidates by dividing their applications into two piles. Pile 1 contains the files of people whose application contains more than one spelling or grammatical error. Pile 2 contains the rest.1

Pile 1 goes in the garbage immediately after the form rejection letters go out.
Pile 2 undergoes further review.

Sound callous? Not really. Think about it: if the person isn't conscientious enough to proofread when his own ass is on the line, what's he going to do when he has to write something for someone else, such as a brief for a client? Besides, even if my father didn't personally care about grammar and spelling, he'd still have to act the way he does, because the judges who read briefs care about it quite a bit.

So careful proofreading may help you get a job somewhere someday.

Parable the Second:

A student applying to my school started his application essay with the following sentence:

"After much deliberation, I have decided that Stanford is the graduate school for me."

Great. Very inspiring. 'Cept this ain't Stanford. His interview went something like this:

Interviewer (staring off into space): "So you're applying to...Stanford."
Applicant: "Well, actually, yeah. How did you know?"
Interviewer (smirking): "So tell me what you like about...Stanford."
Applicant: " But I really feel like this place..."
Interviewer (interrupting): "But why should we admit you if you think Stanford is the best place for you?"
Applicant: "Wha...what makes you say that?"
Interviewer:"It's the first sentence of your essay."
Applicant: "..."
Interviewer: "Enjoy Stanford."{throws the essay in the subject's lap and walks out}.

Obviously, if there are errors in this writeup--or any of my writeups--I'd like to know about them. Please /msg me and I'll fix them after punching myself a few times.

1Incidentally, my father judges the state of our educational system by comparing the size of Pile 1 to Pile 2. When the size of Pile 1 exceeds that of Pile 2, he knows that the educational system fifteen years previous did not emphasize grammar or spelling. When Pile 2 > Pile 1, he knows that the reverse was true. Thus, back in the 70's, he received applications from people who were educated in the 50's and 60's; during these years, Pile 2 was much higher than Pile 1. In the 80's, he started receiving applications from people who went to school in the 60's and 70's; in these years (which he calls the Dark Ages), Pile 2 dwindled to a handful of files, while Pile 1 overflowed his desk (even though these guys had the advantage of spell checkers!) The size of Pile 2 increased slowly throughout the 90's, and now approaches or exceeds the size of Pile 1. So there's been some progress, though perhaps not enough.

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