You and your paper haven’t seen each other in three weeks, but when you walk into class that day, you know there’s no escape: Essays are being handed back, and you’re face to face with a piece of writing you thought had been stapled up and finished with a long time ago. You decide to give it a skim, and boom — the first thing you notice is the typo in the third line. Two careless “the’s” buried in the second paragraph. A sentence that runs on … and on … and on.
Your mind is plagued with would’ves, should’ves and could’ves — but it’s all too late. How could this have happened? You had read the essay passionately five times over at least (well, thoroughly the first two, but skimming the last three) before printing it out and turning it in proudly. You even thought it was pretty good, considering you wrote a good part of it the night before, but still — three weeks later, the simplest of errors seem to glare back at you. What made them so hidden from sight before? How could even the writer, the one whom each handpicked word is most dear to, be so blind to her own mistakes?
I may not be a guru, but as a copy editor who has often pondered the existential question of why newsrooms couldn’t just train their reporters with an AP Stylebook boot camp and be rid of the copy desk completely, I have come to realize something that you, as a writer, probably know deep down: Your writing needs to see other people.
Research has shown that the more familiar you are with a piece of writing, the harder it is to catch easy mistakes — so what starts as well-intentioned proofreading often becomes the glossing over of the same letters and words you’ve seen all too many times. For readers experiencing your piece of writing for the first time, however, each word is a necessary constituent of understanding your main concepts as a whole — which is why they’re much more likely to catch the little things you overlook. In other words, I’m sorry; it’s not your writing — it’s you.
If you do earnestly want to change your ways and repent all the neglect you’ve shown in your editing process, though, there are ways you can become a better proofreader — just spice things up a bit. Go on a first date with your writing again by dressing things up in a new color and font, or comb through a paragraph for typos by reading it backward from last word to first. Even reading your lines out loud makes a difference in defamiliarizing your own writing. But if all else fails, it might be best to accept that someone else is better off editing your writing than you are. So use whatever lines you need to; say that you’re just not ready, that you need some space or that things just aren’t working out.
Or, of course, on the rare occurrence that you aren’t on a time crunch, there’s never any shame in going on a break.
Contact Mikaela Luke at [email protected].