How Not to Write Like an Idiot

How Not to Write Like an Idiot

I’m going to tell you how not to write like an idiot in pubic.

If you read that first sentence twice, you’ve witnessed caught-with-your-pants down copyediting. Naturally, I meant public – but the absence of that all-important l probably had you second-guessing my ability to give you sage advice about copyediting.

And that’s even before you start reading the full article.

I recently read a 520-page publication from the editors of Writer’s Digest titled Writer’s Digest University: Everything You Need to Write and Sell Your Work. It has a lot of good info on writing and publishing for both beginning and experienced writers.

On page 7, it has this winning sentence: “In fact, a writer should be able to learn from the study of any good writin, be it fiction, nonfiction, poetry or script.”

Good writin is, after all, good writin.

On page 35, a writer poses a question to the experts: “I have had a novel in mind for almost ten years. My insurmountable problem is that I need to skillfully covering many years without confusing the reader. What should I do?”

I’d say skillfully copyediting the question would be a fine start.

My point here isn’t to diss the Writer’s Digest copyeditors; I know a couple of the editors, and they are good, smart people. I’ve bought their products for years and gained insights from them.

The trouble is, particularly in a publication about writing, those kind of editing smears create a certain lack of confidence in the quality of the writing advice.

Take a lesson from their mistake: If you intend your copy to say “Take your bulls by the horns,” but it’s printed as “Take your balls by the horns,” you discomfit your audience.

And that misstep might very well have them hesitating to hit the “Buy” button.

Personal example: I was the copyeditor for a large software company in the mid-80s that sent out an annual product guide to its huge mailing list. The order page in the guide’s middle had a big 800 number. I’d seen the 800 number perhaps as many times as I’d seen my mother.

So my not noticing that the 800 number was wrong was like not noticing that my mother had grown a six-foot green tentacle in place of an arm.

Even the most thoroughly edited documents will have errors of some kind, whether outright typos, formatting inconsistencies or stylistic cracks. Having performed many bleary-eyed deadline edits of book-length documents that were sent to press—and later had hair-pulling sessions when I reviewed the proofs—I can sympathize.

But there are a few ways, as editor or writer, you can cut down on the number of green tentacles in your work.

Editing Tips that Lead to Fewer Blood Drips

  • Don’t Die at Deadline
  • Give yourself enough time so you are relaxed and alert when it’s time to do a final proof. Note: saying “final” proof implies prior proofs. You did do some preliminary rounds of proofreading, didn’t you?

  • Read It and Don’t Weep
  • Reading aloud is one of the best editing techniques. You’ll not only hear the errors, you’ll also hear whether the writing weaves a pleasing melody, or if it’s the Macarena sung in Esperanto.

  • Dance with the One That Brung Ya
  • Pieces of writing (at least good ones) have a certain style, seen in word choice, sentence rhythm and tone. As a copyeditor, it ain’t your place to replace the ain’ts in a piece where isn’ts aren’t in keeping with the established flavor.

  • When the Screen Doesn’t Make the Scene
  • As a writer or editor, proofing onscreen is unavoidable these days. But if it’s a piece of writing that you are truly hanging your hat on, make sure that hat hanger is secure: Print the thing out and proof it on paper. Even the sharpest of screen resolutions can’t compare to that of a printed doc.

  • Plug Leaky Punctuation
  • Often it’s the “they’re” or “their” or the “it’s” or “its” that will give you the yips. Grab a good grammar book like Woe is I or Eats, Shoots & Leaves and get those rules about possessives, plurals and the like down. Scan for them and for the use of colons and semicolons. You’ll often find structural problems caused by the miscasting of those squiggly little marks.

  • Spellcheckers, Grammar Checkers and Bugbears, Oh My!
  • The electronic tools built into your word processor (or purchased to be used with it) do have a function, but they’re often pointed to beginning or inexperienced writers. Electronic checkers won’t see the “you” as wrong when you meant “your”; they won’t flag homophones (like to, too, and two) as a mistake, and so forth.

There are plenty of more ways to make your dangling participles perk up, but we can’t go on too long here, or I’ll make an error that someone will too gleefully point out.

Oh, and one more thing to check: your numbers. Sometimes they just don’t add up.

Tom suggested some great grammar and style guides for writers, but we thought we’d let you know our favourite choices (just to make things fair, after all):

Post by Tom Bentley

Tom Bentley is the author of the Easy Editing and Spiffy Style Guide, which shamelessly uses words to make points about words. He blogs on writing-related issues at The Write Word.

Join the Discussion. Click Here to Leave a Comment.

  1. Yep, spelling mistakes send all the wrong messages. Thanks for the tips Tom.
    I’m amazed how many people confuse lose with loose eg LOOSE WEIGHT (!). Few more classic instances in my post

    • Jim, it’s almost unfair how a couple of typos can mar a strong piece of writing, so that its strength seems to ebb away. (And what they do to a weak piece of writing is truly cruel.) However, they can be very useful to identify spam in your mailbox, when the subject line screams out an inanity like “Loose Weight!” Goodness, is that a horrible new syndrome we all must fear? Nah, just a typo …

  2. Hi Tom,

    You’ve listed some great ways for writers to catch typos and other word pile-ups that don’t make sense.

    Reading aloud is one of the best ways. Now with the Internet, people often forget that writing is a kind of music. Reading aloud helps the writer hear if the melody is off. Like any piece of music, certain words/phrases can make the writing sound off-key.

    Regarding phone numbers in a publication – call them. As a designer, I often do that. I’ve had clients give me wrong phone numbers and o.k. them for press.

    Maybe another issue with the WD piece might be the length. Something that long can be brutal for even the best copy editor. Does it really take 520 pages to give folks enough information to sell their work? A friend years ago told me the steps to get published in a few phone conversations and emails. And it worked.

    Enjoyed it! Giulietta

    • Giulietta (ooh, I was careful with that one), I’m very much with you on the musicality of writing—you can often hear when the word piano is out of tune, when your eyes don’t register the discord. As for your advice on calling numbers—yes indeed. I was the proofing coordinator for the Pacific Bell Smart Yellow Pages years ago, and one of my truly dreary tasks was to verify a big set of business numbers the hard way—by calling them. I’m sure they were all delighted to hear from me.

      On the WD book: absolutely on length being daunting, but that calls for proofing in section rounds, or perhaps a round-robin of proofing, like the old-school days of having one proofer read the work and another one listen, and then the trade-off. I am hoary enough to have done such in one of my first assignments. But to give credit to the WD University book, it covers a deep range of writing and publishing subjects, some of which are applicable to a narrow range of writers, others directed toward the many.

  3. Nice to see you here Tom. 🙂

    I know of an instance where the 1-800 number was not only wrong, it was X-rated, The misprint was for a porn line, rather than a business publisher.

    • Jodi, the incorrect 800 number of mine WAS correct (for someone, at least), though it didn’t go to a porn palace. It went to an out-of-state business, that popular as our software was, was inundated by calls. They were not amused. My company actually sent one of our employees to that business, where they fielded calls for an unhappy stint, redirecting them to the correct number.

      The head of operations at our company immediately called for my head, but my boss, the most profane man I’ve ever known, talked him out of it, with many “He’s an effing blockhead, but he’s MY effing blockhead.” This effing blockhead always checked the number THREE times after that.

  4. Thanks for the tips. It is so hard to catch one’s own mistakes in writing. After losing potential copywriting business because of typos and similar errors on my site, I now have a friend proof everything before I hit the “publish” button. I think I’m also going to take your advice and start printing what I’m proofing.

    • Alexa, I have the problem of being both a writer and an editor, so that I blithely conclude that I can edit my own stuff. Wrong! Though I do it, all too often, all too often I find an error or seven. So, I sometimes engage the services of my girlfriend Alice, who is also a writer, and has a good eye.

      I’ve been working with the editor of a small publishing company that’s going to put out a book of my short stories, and it’s amazing (or amazingly painful) how another set of eyes can see blunders my offhandedly confident eyes missed. (“Offhanded eyes”—handy, but not all-seeing.)

  5. Just to “take the balls by the horn,” to me and many in the disability community, it is insulting to use words like “idiot.”

    So, even though you had excellent advice on copywriting, my blood pressure was up for the whole article because of the title. I’m sure you never intended to hurt anyone, but I’m writing this to inform.

    You are right–words are important and they are personal. When my son was a baby (1975) the neurologist of a major urban hospital told us, “If we were lucky our son would be an “idiot” and not in the more severe category of ‘imbecile’.” He said our son’s skills were probably too low for him to be in the “moron” category but we could hope for “idiot.” Those were the official categories for medical and education diagnosis.

    If you want more information check out Parallels in Time.

    • Hey Mary,

      Please blame me – I set titles around here, and of course choose ones that are compelling. No insult is ever intended.

      For sure, personal experience and perception go a long way in what sets of our hot buttons. I know I don’t like it when people joke about having Alzheimer’s – my father passed away from that disease, and I know it’s no laughing matter. The same goes for how you feel about the word ‘idiot’ – personal experience shades how you feel about the word.

      But in the end, words are just words, really. They only hold the power to insult and offend if we let them.

      Anyways, again, sorry this one hit a sore spot with you!

      • James, I know you meant no offense. Your example of your dad and Alzheimer’s is perfect. But the words still hurt.

        • Mary, I ask your forgiveness for my offending you. And James is gracious in trying to offload the blame, but I played a central part in word choice here. I am aware of those old (and to my mind, offensive in themselves) categorizations of mental capacity, but that didn’t surface in my writing of this piece. For better or worse, those terms have become common parlance, and come easily to the tongue (or keyboard) without intending to damn their target for some discriminatory—and likely arbitrary—mental status, but more to poke in the general sense.

          I wanted to put a little vinegar in the language, but never at the expense of any maligned group. But connotations for words do move on, and in this sense, I’m with James. However, I’m sorry to have troubled you.

  6. A newspaper mentor taught me to proofread backwards. Harkens back to the olden days of hot metal when typesetting was done upside down and backwards. (Yeah, that needs some copyediting, so I left it.)
    copyediting has a squiggly underneath when I left this comment. Somebody thinks it should be two words?

    • Hey 60, proofing backwards is one of the old techniques, and it can be a way to proof the words without getting caught up in their meaning, which sometimes distracts from straight proofing. I actually used to proof long docs upside down (back when I worked in a typesetting shop), because of the reason mentioned above, and because that was one way to better see if the leading (line spacing) was correct, along with other vertical/horizontal adjustments. And yes, I even used a pica scale. That was a long time ago.

      “Copyedit,” “copyediting” and “copywriter”—one word. That’s one of those cussed automaton spellcheckers that ain’t hip beleaguering you.

  7. Another pitfall: gotta watch out for those longer words which we read by looking at the first and last letters only.

    ‘Lightning’ is one of my brand words. I remember catching it once as ‘lighting’. The ‘n’ is difficult to spot.

    • Patrick, “lightning” is a word I see missing its proper innards on a regular basis. Another bite out of right is seeing “lightening,” when “lightning” was intended.

  8. I’m just impressed you read a 520 page book on writing. That alone ought to prevent you from writing like an idiot.

    • Oh, I’ve read many a worthy tome on the how-tos of writing (besides those mentioned above, I love Karen Gordon’s funny books on grammar) and have the Chicago Manual by my side to throw at Klingon intruders, but still, errors are like rust—they creep in, and keep creeping.

      [Note to self: eternal vigilance is the price of literacy.]

  9. Mark W. says:

    Thanks Tom. This is good advice for a writer in any profession.

    • Hey Mark, thanks. Since many writers have other professions (playing Internet poker, for instance), it’s true that it goes across the board. And never mistake a Jack for a King.

  10. It’s funny but editing on paper really does help.

    • Hey Jarvis, I think the scientific research shows that the resolution on paper is a zillion times as high as that of the screen. (Please be advised that I’m not a scientist, and don’t even play one on TV.). OK, “zillion’ isn’t quite right, but it is considerably higher, and thus easier to read, particularly for long documents.

      Besides, you can shuffle the paper, and feel like an important lawyer.

  11. Tom, I’ll swap you proofreading for editing any time you want. Not, of course, that I’ll do the proofing; Best Beloved is much better than I. I’d just love to get out of the bad habit of editing my own writing.

    Though I fall mostly to the trap of overusing my beloved phrases, I do still include the stupidest sounding typo in the English language: “you” for “your”, as in “Please provide you name” which makes me sound like an, um, unskilled writer.

    Hope to see you infest MWP again in future.

    • Joel, I’m with youse guys—I’ve made that “you/your” tango too many times. Whatever solace it is, we’re not alone: that’s one of the errors I see constantly in all types of writing. We will have to do some 90 proofing together one of these days …

      • I’m all for shuffling papers like an important lawyer while doing some 90-proofing with white lightning…

        • James, sometimes a vigorous round of proofing is deservedly followed by a stimulating shot of 90-proofing (though reversing the order is usually a bad idea).

          Besides learning how to shuffle papers like an important lawyer, I am training to dismissively wave my hand in the air in a powerful but impressively nonchalant manner. The world will be mine!

      • The other day I took the there/their fall….my line was “Their is a reason for …”. Thankfully there was an edit function and I dodged looking like an ass

        • Gosh, Bhaskar, you remind me that there are levels of asininity: there are those small puddles we step in, like misusing “Their” for “Their,” for which we sigh at ourselves and move on, knowing the shoe will dry, and then there are actual asses, like, say, Donald Trump braying about Obama’s birth certificate.

          I already feel a bit chastened about using “idiot” here to describe the errors that we all often fall into, but so be it. I’d wager that if you picked up any publication of any substance—novel, biz book, magazine—you’d be able to find some kind of grammatical or formatting pratfall, no matter the prestige of the publication. So, as it’s been said, “There’s an ass for every seat.”

          Not that the perpetrators of these egregious errors shouldn’t be horsewhipped now and then. (No, I’m kidding, just kidding …)

  12. My new favorite is “Spunk & Bite” by Arthur Plotnik. Lots more fun than the old standard and still full of solid advice.

    • Jean, “Spunk and Bite” is great! It really is a good read (if you like grammar books), supplies good advice, and while it does tweak the nose of the venerable Strunk and White a bit, it’s all in good fun.

  13. Excellent points here, great post. As a former managing editor who frequently had to proof a 200 page magazine in the middle of a dozen other projects, I relate to your tips! Reading out loud and printing pages also helps. I once read that bloggers should be allowed a little leeway with typos, but I disagree. If you’re writing for publication, your copy should be clean.
    PS I’m writing this on an iPad 2 and have had to review the text 3 times, that’s how easy it is to run words together on this snappy device! But I’m not complaining.

    PPS Really liked your website, dowloaded the creativity e-book.

    • Carrie, at least with blogging, you can go back and edit your post, as i’ve done many times, not simply for typos, but in seeing a phrase with no zing or a point that reads round rather than sharp. But i still cringe at some of the software manuals I wrote years ago (for Maxis) in which I see an error—out, damn spot!

      Thanks for the download! And if you do tire of that silly iPad, you can mail it to me, and i’ll give it to a worthy charity, which also happens to be me.

  14. Thanks. I will check out the punctuation books. I have one but it is so boring that I just tend to stick to my more whimsical style of capitalization and comas.
    I do have several punctuation ninjas for friends who are willing to read and correct for me…who understand my conversational and wandering style of writing and love for…. and the ; while not have much patience for the , . ‘
    The advise about printing a draft is such good advice; I had forgotten about it….When you see 10 pages and know you could have written what you did in 2 pages–you are your own best slasher.

    Hope you have a perfectly wonderful weekend.

    • Katybeth, I love the phrase “you are your own best slasher.” Yes! I envision myself the star of “Halloween 11: Proofing with a Vengeance.”

      You do have to be careful of those comas though, because it’s a difficult state from which to discern any miscast commas. (Forgive me, I had to do it…)

  15. G’Day Tom,
    Thanks for such a useful post. Anybody who recommends “Eats, Shoots and Leaves” deserves a comment.

    Apart from being most entertaining and informative, ESW contains far and away the best explanation of how to use the apostrophe that I’ve found anywhere.

    Stephen King’s “On Writing” and Robert Gunning’s “The Technique of Clear Writing” are particularly useful too.

    Make sure you have fun



    • Leon, so many people have told me that “On Writing” is a great book—I must be frightened to buy it because I suspect that there are large, murderous dogs or banshees in it. Oh wait, that’s his fiction. I’m not familiar with Gunning at all. This time, I will brave it and get the King book and check out Gunning too. Thanks!

      • The best thing in On Writing is the advice to write to a specific, real person.

        Otherwise I find it a bit of a ramble. Needs more killer clowns.

        • Patrick, that is solid advice to write to a person, which I think can be effective for both fiction and nonfiction, in giving you a focus, providing more intimacy or conversational style when that’s helpful, and maybe even provoking the kind of spontaneous revelations that can pop up in the exchange of ideas.

          And what book doesn’t benefit from more killer clowns?

  16. I laughed and laughed – great article and SO TRUE. One of my Rich Dad, Poor Dad books has reference to another book, The Art of War. However, they spell it; The War of Art.

    The unfortunate thing is once its published – it is impossible to get it back. I’m certain the Rich Dad team of professionals tires of being told over and over about that typo.

    Thanks! I’m signing up for your feed. My first email newsletter hits our email list today. I’m on pins and nettles 🙂

    • So true about not getting your typos back—there’s no Great Invisible Eraser of Justice to reach out for you. That does remind me of all the toil that copyeditors and proofreaders undergo, where if they’ve made 175 good corrections in a manuscript, but one blight gets through, that miscreant is the one they’re remembered for. Oh the humanity!

      The book title might indeed be an error, but there IS a book called the War of Art (by Steven Pressfield), which is highly regarded in creative business and motivational circles—could that be the title in question?

      Hope that newsletter hits its mark!

  17. Annie Dennison says:

    Great to see you here, Tom!

    As always, you’ve delivered useful advice in a playful, pithy, accessible way. And thank goodness for that, because I’m not about to read (or even lift) a 520-page tome on writing. Your 55-page Spiffy Style Book, which I downloaded, is a tenth as heavy, but packed with great tips.

    And hey, I’m looking forward to your next article in the series: “How Not to Act Like an Idiot in Pubic.”

    • Annie, I’ll send you the condensed version of the 520-pager: it says “Write every day. You’ll get better.” (Wish I could heed my own advice.) Thanks for the marketing skywriting; your reward will be the YouTube capture of me starring in “Pubic Idiocy, or How I Stopped Worrying About Whether My Fly Was Down, and Began Enjoying the Unconstrained Life”

      Now you can see why I’m not a screenwriter …

  18. Reading aloud is my secret weapon to improving the flow of writing – and reading what I’ve written to someone who doesn’t know the subject is how I make sure it makes sense to everyone. (Unless the piece is obviously for technical experts.)

    The biggest challenge for me is how much to correct when editing something written by someone with a highly unique style or whose native language is not English to make it more correct without changing their unusual voice. Often it isn’t “wrong” – just not how an American would have phrased it.

    • Gail, that is a tricky one on how to control the buggy of a piece of writing that has spirited-but-on-the-verge-of-crazed horses. I was an Engiish teacher on a tiny Micronesian island (where English was the language of business), and some of the students wrote essays with very creative phrasing and sometimes poetic language, though the grammar had been assassinated.

      It was a challenge to try and explain the structural problems while praising the poetry; I don’t think I was that successful in getting my thoughts across.

  19. Tom,
    Thanks for the solid tips. No matter how hard I try to repeatedly edit my writing, I invariably fail from time to time to catch small, but seemingly obvious errors. I agree, that printing it out, and reading aloud certainly help me flesh out the word errors that my mind otherwise overlooks. My suggestion to add it always check your links before publishing, especially if you are referencing someone else. Your effort to toot someone’s horn falls flat when the link ceases to function as you intended.

    • Nice, I even goofed here. 🙂 Alas…

      • Alas indeed Shannon, but you’re in good company—I’ve flubbed a couple of the comments here myself. And those “seemingly obvious errors” are so often obvious only in hindsight. I read something and say to myself, “Gadzooks, how did they miss THAT?” But you know how it goes: you’re writing in flow, you glance over the goods, it all reads well in your mind because your mind has settled it in your head—though not on the page—and you click “Send.” Yikes!

        Variants of that happen in printed works, even after rounds of proofing; often new errors are introduced in the correcting of old, as i’ve seen (and sadly, participated in) many times.

        (Though I wish i did, I don’t actually say “Gadzooks!” to myself that often.)

  20. Great post! I once made a bet with 7 colleagues that I could go with them to Barnes & Noble and find an error in any book they picked off the shelves for me. And I’d do it within 10 minutes. I won a lot of money! One guy picked a book. Took me 2 minutes. Another took the bet and handed me another book–by a famous author. Took me 6 minutes. A 3rd gave me a textbook by a famous textbook company. Took me 9 minutes. I was sweating a bit, but I found an error.

    • Marc, definitely, if you’ve an eye (and a stomach) for it, there are lapses aplenty in almost any publication. And those are the PROS behind them—with the flooding Mississippi of self-published pieces cresting the word-banks now, errors will be like weeds in an untended field. I hope that doesn’t mean that standards will slip all the more, so that no one will care that an “it’s” should be an “its.” Rise to the defense of the well-placed punctuation mark!

      Of course, when standards slide to their soggy rest on the barroom floor, I’ll be out of a job and I can go back to concentrating on shoplifting.

  21. Dear Readers:

    Writing not as an idiot doesn’t mean that you are an expert. That goes together with being a good editor. Being good editor doesn’t mean that you have to curt someone’s mind just to sit in his/her article. Just give the backing of the story with fairness and accuracy .It could be may be you want to edit a novel or any article, is all the same just be in between

    Ntarugera François

    • Ntarugera, you easily win the prize for “best name that I have to move my head close to the screen to make sure I don’t misspell.” Very good!

      And I heartily agree that you don’t have to cut someone’s mind to sit in his or her article—that’s a very expressive way of putting it, and “sitting” with a piece of writing is a wonderful metaphor for finding the heart of a story—thanks.

  22. Great post Tom! It really doesn’t take much to make a potentially great article, novella or whatever sound idiotic. Making mistakes when writing is inevitable. Even though most of the times the mistakes are pretty much obvious, spotting them is not always an easy task. That is why taking the time to proofread what you are writing is a must – I would recommend rereading at least three times to make sure you haven’t left anything to chance. Strangely though, based on many of the articles I come across, a lot of people think of proofreading as an unnecessary thing.

    • Daniel, one of the things that’s maddening to me is that I’ll carefully proof something, consider it proofed, and then come back for a return proof and IMMEDIATELY spot an error, like a wasp that flies into your eye. That’s happened to me many times—I’m grateful that I do indeed spot another miscue, but have that slap-my-forehead feeling of frustration that I didn’t get it the first time.

      As you say, the mistakes often seem obvious, but whatever brainwave wobble makes you catch a bunch of errors but not until the second (or third) round see them all is a mystery to me. It reminds me of when I used to pick apples in the summer: I’d think a tree was finished (and even walk around to check) but sometimes when I’d look back over my shoulder I’d see a lone apple or two resting in the tree, mocking me. The nerve!

  23. Tom, your Plug Leaky Punctuation tip reminded me that (1) a spastic colon can ruin an otherwise useful sentence, and (3) semicolons aren’t fish.

    It reminded me of other stuff, too.

    • Jeff, a spastic colon is the one where the lower period is way out of alignment with the upper one—ouch! Since I do love to quote myself, as I said in my style guide, “The semicolon is truly the formal gentleman of punctuation (top hat and all).” Nothing fishy about that.

  24. LL Derr says:

    Great post. The importance of editing can never be understated!

    Playing devil’s advocate here though. I have rarely come across a long piece of writing that did not contain an error. Just to be fair, it is not always the author, the publisher, or the editor. It is a crazy and insane process to get a book to market. For my two books I had 5 editors, each with a different responsibility. In the end, during production layouts, things that were once correct or corrected are tossed out when the production person layouts out the text.

    Just saying. I give books far more slack as far as typo’s or punctuation than I give web articles.

    • LL, I’m with you on the tortuous road to publication—on its many twists and turns (and having multiple drivers at the reins), the book can get trampled by the spooked horses at many corners. It will be interesting (or terrifying) to see how the proliferation of ebooks, now often without the intercession of various editors, affects the quality of the works.

  25. Hi Tom

    My Mama taught me the joy of reading and one of my greatest joys to this day is finding a typo in a novel. I LIVE for the day I can find them.

    When I found a typo I would call my Mama and tell her ‘I have a great novel for you to read.’ That expression was our code for, ‘there’s a typo in the book, see if you can find it.’ I would hand the book over and could imagine her eyes salivating as she read the novel, entranced by the writing and the story. And then, upon finding the typo, I knew her head would rise, a smile would come to her lips and her infamous, ‘a ha’ could be heard.

    Sharing the joy of finding a typo in a novel is one of the memories of my Mama I’ll treasure.

    • Marilyn: my mother, a lifetime reader, is my greatest reading (and thus writing) influence. Not that she hammered the need to read into me, but that she so obviously loved to read herself, and eclectically. I eagerly followed her lead. She is now almost blind, but still reads with a magnifying glass, because reading is so much part of her character.

      So, who was the better proofer? Did she always find the typo you spotted? Or vice versa?


  26. Love this post, Tom. All your tips seem so obvious, but they are mistakes that we all make. Before I read it, I thought in my head that the technique I find that helps me the most is reading out loud. My pattern is as follows:

    Read over
    Read out loud
    Read once more

    It may be anal, but I hate errors! Great tips.

    • Sarah, it sounds like I should be hiring YOU to do my editing (then I will have more time to work on the statue of Mark Twain I am making entirely out of kite string).

      Really though, that kind of care has to produce good results. I suspect there are no dust bunnies in your house either….

  27. Great article. All the tips are very wise and it’s so important to keep a close and focused eye on anything you write.

    I think the tip that’s the best and the one I use the most is reading out loud. I catch so many more errors when i read something out loud. Plus, this helps not just with spelling or grammatical errors, but can also help the rhythm of the piece as you say it out loud.

    I don’t know if you’ve read a lot of eBooks, but the ones I’ve read on my iPad so far have had a lot of mistakes. Do you think that’s an editor’s error in the original content, or from the switch made from the book to the digital medium?

    • Sarah, did anyone ever tell you that there’s another Sarah that looks a good deal like you, posting in the same forums? Check her out above. Most declaredly, reading aloud is a versatile tool that reveals a good deal about the structure and flow of content—and just paying that kind of attention to writing will expand your sense of what’s right (or right AND rhythmic) in a piece of prose.

      As for ebooks, a percentage of them are being published these days without having employed the holy instrument of a good editor first. Oh dear.

  28. Thanks for this post Tom, and thanks to your readers for their additions. I love the way you make me think and make me laugh at the same time.

    • Jule, in reading your comment I had the terrible image of one’s brains being coughed out (you do know that thinking and laughing at the same time is hazardous, don’t you?), but I know you’re sensible enough not to do that. Good to see you here! (How do you like my outfit?)

  29. Great post. You definitely have the authority of experience behind this one. I teach college history and other stuff, and your examples remind me of the time I meant to write “public outcry” on the board but forgot the “l” and ended up with pubic. The students and I got a kick out of that!

    And I clicked on this article because of the title. Not offensive at all in my opinion.

    • Clay, it’s funny (or scary), but you are the third person to say they had either seen the pubic problem, or committed it themselves. And here I thought the pubic would never stand for this! It does tell you that errors are everywhere there are eyes (but our eyes often miss them the first time around).

      And I think I’m glad that James removed the several instances of the F-word (no, it wasn’t funnelcake) from my original—surely I’d be cuffed and beaten by now.

  30. Tom,

    I’m always surprised when I read a well-written article and in the middle there’s a simple mistake like click hear instead of here. When someone puts your instead of you’re, it reflects on their credibility. Grammar and spell-checking is so important.

    Thanks for sharing your ideas and the books.


    • Connie, I think the users of “click here” are trying to employ a multi-sensory command (Hear that click in your head? Buy Now!). But alas, you’re probably right—it’s an error.

      There is an interesting visual-center association with spelling: I’ve always been a good speller, partially because I see a visual of words in question in my head when I’m reading. Errors often stand out. Though of course that “gift” doesn’t come into play when you are talking about homophones like “here” and “hear.”

      For extirpating those criminals, you must employ the gigantic magnifying glass that I use for everything I read. (Nope, just kidding. But wait a few years for these eyes to fade…)

  31. Loved reading this post. It’s very entertaining. It gets me really frustrated to read published yet unedited works. I hope a lot of writers out there, regardless of media, would read about this and learn from it. Thanks for sharing.

    • Wise words, Wesley Wise. (Forgive me for that one.) I get frustrated with lousy editing and ding-dang typos too.

      As for learning, yessir, I’m up for it (most of the time)—it’s an endless process.

  32. Thanks Tom for your brilliant tips. A painting with vague colors usage may become a ‘modern art’ for many, but writing is an art where even small mistakes could diminish the value of the complete write-up. While writing is an art, editing can help deliver the correct essence of the piece of writing.

    I hope these tips would work not only for editors but for writers as well.


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