As you may or may not know, I am completing a Masters of Arts in Literary Studies at the University of Waterloo. But I’m also completing an 8-month co-op term as a copywriter, now copyeditor, at a marketing company. Anyone who has spent any time composing assignments for school knows that little typos and errors inevitably sneak through your self-editing abilities. Even if you’ve edited your assignment several times, misspelled words or subject-verb disagreements appear out of nowhere, causing you ask yourself, “how did I miss that?” But, what do you do if you’re getting paid to ensure that those mistakes don’t sneak through? Do you just read “harder”?
The reason that editing your own writing presents a unique challenge spawns from the same reason that we make grammar mistakes in the first place. When you’re writing, you make assumptions about the meaning of your content internally, but your reader can’t make those same assumptions–they don’t have the background knowledge of the subject that you do. So, for example, you might write, “Steven Harper agreed to spend two extra hours debating the economy, but it wasn’t necessary.” But what wasn’t necessary—the extra time debating the economy, or the debate itself? As a writer, you know that you meant that the extra time wasn’t necessary, but your reader might not. It’s difficult to realize, but you should have written, “it wasn’t necessary for Steven Harper to spend two extra hours debating the economy.”
Anyway, without getting too technical, the main reason that editing your own writing is difficult is that humans use language in context–this means that a conversation or a document each has meaning within a specific setting. Conversations occur based on our surrounding; documents are composed based on textual needs. So imagine that you and your friend are in a restaurant debating about Stephen Harper’s perceived need for a debate on the economy. If your friend Cheryl sits with you unexpectedly, she’ll have no idea of the context of your argument—though it’s likely won’t take her long to catch on. But you and your friend will give her a brief update on the conversation because she doesn’t know its context.
In order to effectively write, one has to empathize with an audience—the same way that you’ve updated your friend Cheryl. The difference between conversation and writing is that with writing we’re not always 100% sure of the ongoing conversation–it’s taking place inside of our heads. The human mind is so complex that it can think of thousands of aspects of a thing at a given moment, and all of those ideas want to come bursting out when we discuss or write about a topic. but a writer has to choose the best ideas and communicate them in the clearest way. Yet, when writing, we make assumptions about our topic that are very clear in our own minds, but that our readers may not understand—such as the fact that Stephen Harper’s extra time debating was unnecessary, and not that the debate itself was unnecessary. Either way, we inevitably make these assumptions when we write, and the trick with self-editing is spotting these assumptions and fixing them for your audience.
One of my responsibilities as the copyeditor is proofreading every document before it goes to print. Proofreading sounds easy, but you have to keep in mind that I’ve often written these documents’ first drafts, edited these drafts according to internal revisions, read them again upon the completion of internal revisions, read them again in layout, edited them again according to client revisions, read them upon the completion of client revisions, read them again in layout, and then read them again in preflight (a term used in printing to describe confirming that the digital files required for printing are all present, valid, correctly formatted, and edited.) What I’m trying to say is that I’ve often read documents that I’ve written 5-6 times before the final stage of editing, but then I have to proofread them one last time before they go to print— “proofing.”
But, if a typo has somehow appeared in a document at the proofing stage, you’re in danger of missing typos because you’ve read the document so many time you’ve almost memorized. And this is just like a student with an assignment–you read it over and over until you’re sure it’s perfect, but those typos still appear. Well one or two typos isn’t a big deal for a student, but for me it could cost my company thousands of dollars. And, realistically, in the “real world” typos in documents like business proposals, posters, brochures, even emails can cause the audience to rethink the reliability of the document’s source–i.e., you! The next post in this series will outline some tips and tricks for editing your own work.