Re. Professional mistakes

Subject: Re. Professional mistakes
From: Geoff Hart <geoff-h -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA>
Date: Fri, 12 May 1995 12:44:35 LCL

Douglas Thayer pointed out that even professionals make mistakes.
Amen! The problem with writing and editing is that you're trying to
take something that exists only inside your head and express it
through an imperfect medium, language. (As a note to the skeptical:
we're supposed to be professional communicators, yet I note no less
than half a dozen mini-flame wars that have resulted from unclear
postings or misreadings of clear postings. This is symptomatic!)

I doubt that I've ever produced a publication, in 10 years of writing
and editing, that is entirely error free or that couldn't be improved
by "yet another edit". That's the nature of the game because of a
peculiar tradeoff: If you only edit once, you miss things (being
human); however, the more you edit, the more familiar you become with
the document and thus, the more likely you are to simply read right
through errors... your mind, trying to be helpful, steps in between
your critical faculties and the text and says "I know what that
means... don't fret your head over it or even waste time and notice
it's an error". This makes errors inevitable, particularly if you
permit multiple revisions throughout the process.

I have a metaphor for this, which I call the "mulch pile" metaphor.
Start with a pile of text ("raw organic material"), set it aside for a
week or two after writing or editing ("plop it atop the mulch pile"),
then go back and have another editorial look ("turn over the mulch").
What starts out as partially digested organic material ("shit", if you
will) often mysteriously turns into good fertilizer over this time
period. As nearly as I can explain this, it seems that the elapsed
time allows you to forget the material sufficiently to approach it
with fresh eyes. Unfortunately, time constraints generally make me run
straight down to the nursery for some chemical fertilizer... negating
the benefits of the mulch pile. And some shit gets through the process
and makes it into print.

So yes, professionals make mistakes. On a good day, very few mistakes.
On a bad day, or under deadline pressure, many mistakes. What's truly
weird about this is that you can go through half a dozen edits, not
including author and management approvals after each edit, and still
find glitches. I far-too-regularly find small typos when I'm bundling
pages together to send to the printer, even when I'm not specifically
reading the proofs... they seem to jump out at me, suggesting
something powerful and subconscious is going on here and that maybe
I'm wasting my time reading word by word! Or maybe that's just a crock
of... well, you know. <grin>

--Geoff Hart #8^{)}
geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca

Disclaimer: These comments are my own and don't represent the opinions
of the Forest Engineering Research Institute of Canada.

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