The first page of T.S. Eliot’s manuscript for The Waste Land – if at first you don’t succeed…..

I’m beginning to think that, no matter how many times I proofread, I’ll never spot all the missing or stray words in my posts.

Mostly, this is due to my impatience and over eagerness to hit the ‘publish’ button.

This means that, too often, I make only a superficial read through and a quick spell check before sending my thoughts out into cyberspace.

In one recent post, for example, I initially wrote that a father hoped “his son’s death would be in vain”. The missing ‘not’ in the sentence gave it completely the opposite meaning to the one intended.

I know there are automated proofreading programs but I’m reluctant to use these.

I feel I should be able to spot the errors myself without computerised assistance.

Ironically,in my work,I often give reading passages to English language students and ask then to identify redundant words and unnecessary repetition.

Cambridge University’s First Certificate exam used to include a short text of twelve lines where three or four were correct and the others had an extra word. These were extremely difficult even for advanced students and I wasn’t surprised when Cambridge changed the format and abandoned this task.

Phrasal verbs were often chosen as an area for testing to further complicate the issue. Consider for example that only the first two of the following sentences are correct:

  • The blogger played down the street.
  • The blogger played down the seriousness of the problem.
  • The blogger played down with friends.

In the third sentence ‘down’ would be selected as the extra word.

I don’t think there’s much point in focusing on these fine points of the language. Students need to know rules but those who can tolerate linguistic ambiguities and inconsistencies make the best learners.

But all this doesn’t condone my lack of proofreading skills. It actually makes it worse because I am effectively asking students to do something I can’t do well myself. This is how I plan to improve in this area:
1. When my post is written, I will do something else for a few minutes ( or hours!) so as to return to it with fresh, and more critical eyes.
2. If working on a computer screen I’ll make the text size larger. If printing the text I’ll use large text and double spacing.
3. Never post until I’ve re-read each post at least three times.
4. Read the text out loud.
5. Keep a note of errors I make and try to categorise them e.g. articles, prepositions, verb tenses.

I’m sure that even after all this, I’ll still make mistakes and I’m not going to beat myself up over this. After all, the post could be grammatically precise and free of errors but still be quite dull. Being boring cannot be resolved by merely checking and rechecking what I’ve written.

Good creative writing comes down to the mysteries of inspiration and imagination and only by practice-practice-practice can you improve in these fields.

This classic 1985 Heineken advert is a humorous reminder of how word choice is so critical:

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