That Second Pair of Eyes

 In Storytelling

We all commit them: the slip of the tongue, the thoughtless remark, the joke that falls flat, the words of wisdom that sound profound in our heads but confound on delivery. Sometimes we just wish we had a “do-over” switch.

The same sorts of mistakes creep into our writing as well. We all have our stylistic quirks but don’t always recognize them. We repeat ourselves and make errors in spelling, punctuation, word choice and sentence structure and in how we organize our thoughts. Without realizing it, many of us are cliché magnets or aren’t sure how to deliver our message effectively to a particular audience. And when we’re working on a ninth draft of a document or hammering out an assignment in a hurry to meet tight deadlines, it’s all too easy to make mistakes that everyone but the writer will notice.

This is why writers need editors who can provide that objective set of “fresh eyes” to spot and help fix grammatical and spelling errors, inconsistencies and unclear or missing language. Without editors, writers run the risk of confusing and frustrating or inadvertently amusing readers. Here are some examples of typical—but highly avoidable—bad writing.

Targeting typos

Imagine you’re an employer who’s reading this paragraph from a job applicant:

I attended college from May 1890 to 1994. In my most recent job, I maintained flies and reports and overlooked all duties that required customer service skills. I was there for three years, then had a child, so took maturity leave but am now seeking a party-time position.

Of course, you would never produce a letter like this one, but don’t assume such editorial missteps are committed only by careless job seekers. Published writers commit these and other mistakes all the time.

Spotting sloppy syntax

Police will not confirm reports that the suspect was recently denied by a business in the building that he is holed up in for a heavy trucking license. Translation: Police would not confirm that a business in the building where the suspect is hiding had refused to issue him a heavy trucking license.

Jettisoning the jargon

The National Council of Teachers of English presented its annual Doublespeak Award to the Metropolitan Edison Company, operator of doomed Three Mile Island nuclear plant for coining these gems: 1. “energetic disassembly”  2. “rapid oxidization” and 3. “normal aberration.”

This is one way to avoid telling shareholders that your company’s nuclear plant suffered 1. An explosion, followed by 2. a fire, culminating in 3. a partial nuclear meltdown (which makes me wonder what type of event would constitute an “abnormal aberration”!)

Moving misplaced modifiers

Pet of the week: Nanouk is a 10-week-old Spitz mix female. Sterilization is mandatory for anyone wanting to take her. So, you want the dog or a child? Can’t have both.

Punctuating properly

The family lawyer will read the will at the home of Mrs. Hannity who died June 19 to accommodate her relatives. Very considerate of Mrs. H! Inserting a comma after June 19 would have clarified.

Reducing run-on sentences

“When you couple the findings from this new study with information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that indicates a 10-year trend toward decreasing colorectal cancer mortality rates in the United States at the same time that an increasing number of diagnostic and screening colonoscopies were being performed, a renewed focus on ensuring the access to and the affordability of this important procedure is just the next logical step,” said Mary Jones, M.D., (just before she passed out from lack of oxygen).

Muzzling mixed (and manic) metaphors

Julie Eccles is a swan of beauty and grace, which sails through the portals of the mind into greater sunsets. …Miss Eccles’ mouth is a grand canyon of excellent speech. Moreover, her voice is a shark which swims from its mother’s belly into the blue ocean. …The play flew because of the skills of Julie Eccles and the fact that she is glorious does not hurt! No, but, by now, our minds’ eyes do.

These are just a few examples of mistakes that virtually every writer makes—and often fails to catch—at one time or another. (For a lengthy selection of many more, highly enjoyable ones, visit http://www.d.umn.edu/~schilton/Courses/Snippets.html.) A dependable second set of eyes can help to smooth out the rough spots and ensure that the message being delivered is clear, logical and appropriate for its intended audience.

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