Although I worked as a copy editor for many years (that’s copy editor, not copy-editor), my own writing, as I’m sure you’ve noticed in my comments on your assignments, is riddled with typos and misplaced words. A helpful cliche that people tell you when you’re writing your dissertation is: The best dissertation is a DONE dissertation. Another helpful one goes, “What do you call someone who wrote a bad dissertation? Doctor. The point of both of these, obviously, is: just do the writing! I go by the same principal in my grading, on the assumption that you like would prefer to just get the grades and comments, typos and all, rather than have me achieve a Plantonic ideal of commenting on your papers.
However! I reserve the right to note typos and grammatical errors on your writing, particularly when they reach a critical mass and start distracting me from the content of your writing. It is important that a technical writing document be free of this type of error because one of the ways you create authority in such documents is by asserting that illusion of NEUTRALITY we’ve talked about so many times that attaches to technical writing. As soon as the text introduces errors like mis-spelled or misplaced words, that sense of neutrality weakens–along with the authority you establish.
Some people seem to have a sense of grammar in their bones. When I took the test to be a copy editor, the copy chief asked me how I got certain answers correct, and I didn’t know; some things just looked wrong to me, so I changed them. I was proud of this, having never learned grammar in school in any official capacity…and then I started the actual job. There were hundreds of rules to learn and follow and know that I didn’t understand, and, in my years on the copy desk, I saw that the really gifted copy editors were the ones without a “natural” sense of grammar–the ones who took nothing for granted, who looked everything up just to be sure. Those people regularly found errors I never would have thought to look for.
All that is to say, I don’t think it’s useful to think of an “error-free document” as coming from some natural ability that some people have and others don’t. It’s as much a matter of time and attention as anything else–of working that illusion of neutrality as best you can. I haven’t received, or written, a single document this semester that doesn’t have errors in it. So count yourself among them and do the best you can. The worst thing would be if fear of errors stopped you from writing. Have you ever read about old peoples’ fear of falling? how it can make them not leave their house as much, which means their bones get weaker, so when they do leave their house they actually are more likely to fall? Don’t let something similar happen with your writing and fear of errors.
Here are some resources for writing more clearly, with fewer grammatical mistakes and errors, to create authority and that all-important sense of neutrality in technical documents:
- our old friend, the MS Word spelling and grammar check.
- I haven’t tried Grammarly, but I’ve heard excellent things about it.
- Hemingway offers a more hands-on approach to finding errors in a document.
- Grammar Girl’s website and podcasts are excellent, because the in-depth, interesting discussion of specific issues helps you remember them for next time. So much of what she covers is directly applicable to tech writing.
- the “Comma Queen” videos at the New Yorker’s website are funny, informative, and similarly memorable. Mary Norris, the Comma Queen, addresses in style those central questions so many of us have: lay vs. lie? effect vs. address? who vs. whom? (Norris’s book Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen also looks great, but I haven’t read it yet.)
- The Paradigm Online Writing Assistant is useful and inspiring. I love its advice for fixing spelling errors, as well as its open-minded series of suggestions and approaches to every step of the writing process (“There is no single best way to begin a writing project.”).
- Two complete grammar handbooks online:
- Guide to Grammar and Writing. This one offers info on issues of sentence- and paragraph-structuring, and it’s easy to look up the specific issue or type of assignment you want to know more about.
- English Grammar: A Complete Guide. This is a comprehensive text that neatly divides its discussion into parts of speech, with sections on nouns, adjectives, verbs, and more.