Wednesday, April 07, 2010

"That's what editors and proofreaders are for!"

There are two schools of thought in writing. School A says, "If the argument or essay I'm reading is typo-ridden, I have to wonder how well-constructed the argument or essay is. After all, a person who fails to police the details can't be trusted to convey the big picture."

School B says, "Ideas and arguments are more important than mere details. Let the small-minded worry about misplaced commas, repeated misspellings, and dangling modifiers. If I've written clearly enough to convey the gist of my ideas, then that's all that matters. And if I've made a grammatical and orthographic mess along the way, well... that's what editors and proofreaders are for!"

School B's way of thinking isn't unreasonable. After all, many members of School A do often seem to be too picayune, too prone to missing the forest for the trees. But my problem with School B, and the reason why I can never abandon School A, is that School B employs the same sort of reasoning used by the litterer in a service economy: "So what if I dropped that wrapper on the floor? That's what janitors are for!"

When you fail to police the most basic elements of expression, you risk failing to convey your intended meaning. To belong to School B is to abdicate responsibility for how you express yourself.



Nathan B. said...

I share your feelings, absolutely, Kevin. Unfortunately, while my heart is with School A, circumstances (lack of time and energy, and, more often than not, the delightful presence of young Telemachus) often force me into the company of the practitioners of School B.

Anonymous said...

Well said! I'm generally a 'School B' kind of teacher ... though I also inform my students that mastery of 'School A' reduces the fees paid to proofreaders when they want to publish!


Kevin Kim said...

Nathan, you hit on a good point: if I had written my post in a more charitable tone, I would have noted that some folks who would otherwise belong in School A are often pressed for time and therefore unable to go through the necessary rounds of proofing and editing before they put something out for online consumption. It's not always the case that people don't care about their own output.

I also conveniently neglected to note that my own posts often contain mistakes that range from minor to truly boneheaded, especially when I write them while half-asleep, then post them without a proper once-over. I often strive to correct any mistakes when I catch them in later readings, but some errors go uncorrected until, months or even years later, I find myself rereading a post and realizing that I'd made a whole host of gaffes.

Some bloggers are of the opinion that you shouldn't go back and correct mistakes in already-published posts. They see the blog as a journal, which makes it a matter of integrity and honor not to go back and, if you will, rewrite history. I disagree, not because I think these folks are wrong, but because my own view of my blog is that everything is potentially first-draft material for a book manuscript somewhere down the line-- as was true for Water from a Skull, 60-70% of which was cribbed directly from this blog.


Good point: keep those proofers away!

In the end, neither school is objectively better than the other; both make valid points, but as is true with so many of our basic orientations, it often comes down to a matter of natural preference. My natural bias is toward the "A" way of thinking, so when I see typo-ridden posts I'm often too distracted to care much about the actual content. Others may feel differently.

In fact, now that I think of it: in my career as an English teacher in Korea, I was often more of a "B" person-- what language teachers refer to as a "sympathetic listener" or "sympathetic reader," i.e., someone who charitably listens to or reads the imperfect output of a non-native speaker in an effort to understand the essence of what they're trying to communicate. Most of my Korean friends and acquaintances had to be "B" people with me, too, whenever I spoke Korean, because I made (and still make) so many mistakes.

So perhaps this whole "A versus B" dichotomy could stand some qualification. But that's what the comments section is for, right?

Anonymous said...

It is best to be of the A school as much as possible. There are many constructions that can change meaning with the punctuation, and or spelling, both versions being perfectly valid, e.g., "Drink ye all of this." Place a comma after "ye," and you drain the cup, place it after "all," and you make sure everybody gets a share. A proofreader will not necessarily help in such circumstance.

I had a terror for a high school English teacher. Mechanics came first and a run-on sentence, a sentence fragment, or a comma blunder was an automatic F. It was possible to game her--write something extremely complex but correctly punctuated and she all but ignored the content or ideas.

But she did instill in me a strong ethic to write as mechanically cleanly as possible. Actually that does help clarify thought. Rereading for mechanics before hitting the Publish button often catches errors.

Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Kevin, you've written "well..." in your post, but shouldn't there be a space between "well" and that ellipse?

Jeffery Hodges

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Nathan B. said...

Actually, Kevin, I didn't think your post uncharitable; I thought it a well-written little meditation on an important topic. I'm delighted, by the way, that you're back to blogging here!

Kevin Kim said...


Good to know there's another fellow "A-schooler" out there.


Thanks for the support, and thanks for reading.


I've long wrestled with spacing conventions, especially for certain punctuation marks. For ellipses, what I've settled on is at best an uncomfortable compromise. A quick perusal of Wikipedia (that unassailable authority) seems to indicate that there are many conventions. The one I would ideally follow says there are no spaces before and after the ellipsis in the middle of a sentence, whether the ellipsis indicates a pause or an elision. But on many word processors as well as within many "edit windows" online, if you leave no spaces before and after the ellipsis, the computer treats the word-ellipsis-word combination as a single word, bumping the entire expression down a line if it seems to be spilling over the edge. This makes for ugly reading. I've found that the best way to avoid this problem is to leave no space before the ellipsis, but leaving a space after it so as to allow the first word following the ellipsis to bump down a line, if need be.

The Wikipedia entry contends that the "standard" way to write ellipses is to leave spaces between the periods. This is the first time I've ever heard that, and it's obvious that the people who design word processing software think differently: many word processors will "auto-correct" three periods by cramming them together with super-tight spacing-- essentially converting them into a single character.

It seems that, when it comes to the ellipsis, it's hard to know what standards to follow; it occupies the Wild West of punctuation. That being the case, I find that my uncomfortable compromise is no better or worse than whatever "conventions" currently exist.

Note: I apply a similar logic to how I treat dashes: no space before the dash-- but a space after it to avoid that carriage return problem. Not pretty, but you can blame the software. (You'll notice that in my book, I changed the dashes to proper em dashes, and took out the spaces before and after each em dash, which I think conforms to proper convention. Emphasis on "I think.")

Blogger auto-corrects other spacing "mistakes" as well. I always follow the old rule of two spaces after a period or question mark, two spaces after a colon, one space after a semicolon, etc. I'm aware that, thanks to word processors, the old typing conventions are dying out, and it's now standard to use only a single space after periods, colons, etc. But I also know that it's still perfectly proper to follow the old rule, even online, and even with word-processed documents. You'd never know of my fondness for the old school, though, from reading my blog posts, because Blogger auto-"corrects" all double spacing. That's a bit frustrating. I'd rather that my antiquated ways be visible to all.

Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Kevin, I feel your pain. I have also struggled. My solution? Spaces before, between, and after. That solves all problems.

Jeffery Hodges

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Elisson said...

I'm most definitely of the School A persuasion. Though I may try with all my might, I cannot help but think a little less of a writer whose work is filled with typos or grammatical errors, minor or otherwise. And a sloppy factual error in a work of fiction is deadly. I remember a Tom Clancy novel in which he refers to a 1948 silver dollar - a nonexistent coin. It punctured my ability to suspend disbelief for the entire remainder of the book.

Having said that, one typo does not a lese majeste make. And context counts. People are sloppier in e-mails than in formal writing, alas.

I will correct typos I see in old blogposts. Hell, I'll even partially rewrite old posts if I decide I don't like something that I may have overlooked when I wrote the post.