I have no need to make the case for good writing here, but the act of writing doesn’t end with the first draft. Very few people write first drafts that are ready to be sent out into the world. Every bit of writing, from a job application to a book, benefits from coming back to it with fresh eyes.
A few years ago I stumbled across an entry for my father in Contemporary Authors. He was a giant in the field of industrial and organizational psychology, and all of his published works are in that very narrow specialty. But he made a comment to the editors that applies directly to my subject matter. It concludes:
I have some ideas worth sharing, and . . . although I do not write well, I can revise more patiently than many of my colleagues. The literature in my field is full of barbaric misuses of language. Although I often contribute to the abundance in my own writing, I find such delight in the purging effect of revision that I’ve become an editor. Maybe the old slogan about teachers needs revision: those who can write, do; those who can’t, edit!
I won’t attempt to read anything he published. I have only the most rudimentary knowledge of psychology and probably wouldn’t understand a single paragraph. But I can certainly identify with having to revise patiently.
Not only industrial psychology has literature “full of barbaric misuses of language.” They’re everywhere. My Misused Pears series on this blog deals with only one kind of barbarity: using the wrong word of a pair of homonyms.
A best selling book, Eats, Shoots & Leaves, concerns punctuation errors. Several other classes of error probably merit a book of their own.
Self-publication and bad writing
Bad writing has only gotten more common and unavoidable (for readers) since self-publishing on the Internet became so easy. Once upon a time, not so long ago, anyone who wanted to reach a wide public had to submit a piece of writing to a publisher. Before it ever saw the light of day, an editor, a copy editor, and a proofreader had usually looked at it.
Once it ran the gantlet, the finished book or article had good grammar, syntax, punctuation, spelling, and the right choice between homonyms. I suspect that the abundance of barbarisms in some scholarly disciplines results from editors of their journals not knowing any more about good writing than the authors. Editorial standards differ from one publication to another. Lax or nonexistent editing continues to mar a wide range of print publications.
If you write any kind of Internet content, you are probably both author and publisher. If you are like the vast majority of people who write blog posts, online articles, or ebooks, you don’t have the luxury of hiring an entire editorial staff.
Therefore, you must be the editor.
You, too, may “delight in the purging effect of revision,” but if not, revise anyway. And do it patiently. Your credibility is at stake. If you submit a mistake-ridden guest post to a blogger with high editorial standards, expect him or her to reject your submission rather than spend the time necessary to make it readable.
The danger of self-editing
Self-editing carries a particular danger: you know what you intended to write. Therefore when you look at what you actually wrote, you can be blind to at least some errors. If you have no one to read your draft and comment, then at least let a day or so go past before you begin your revision.
It helps to read your draft out loud. It helps to start at the end and read each sentence from beginning to end, but the article or chapter itself from the end to the beginning.
The Internet has this advantage: it is easy to fix mistakes of any kind after you have published. But it’s better not to publish mistakes in the first place.
(If you find any in this post, leave a comment—but please be kind!)
Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, vol. 7, edited by Ann Evory, s.v. Guion, Robert M(organ)