Widgets The Good Place (Michael L. Umphrey on gardening, teaching, and writing)

"Peace is not an absence of war; it is a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, confidence, justice. - Benedict Spinoza."

How to proofread
     Simplifying the complexity of writing


A story told about Einstein has it that he once met a student on the Princeton campus and asked, “Excuse me young man; can you tell me where the faculty dining hall is?”

“It’s right behind you, professor.”

“Then I must have already eaten lunch.”

The absent-minded professor is a stock character in our culture—someone whose mind is so busy with loftier matters that he forgets his immediate surroundings.

The French physicist Andre-Marie Ampere, who contributed to the discovery of electromagnetism, is said have been walking the streets of Paris with his mind on a problem and to have mistaken the side of a horse-drawn delivery wagon for a chalkboard. He began some calculations on it. When the wagon started to move, he started walking, and then running, continuing his work. More dramatic was Thales of Miletos, who is said to have fallen down a well while walking along contemplating the stars.

Unfortunately, you needn’t be a genius to suffer from absent-mindedness. I myself often find mistakes in my own writing that I routinely correct in the novice writing of my students—"there" when I meant “their.” I make these—and worse—mistakes because I don’t have enough attention to focus on all aspects of writing at the same time, so while I’m trying to get my meaning clear, contemplating the stars as it were, I sometimes fall in a well of sorts and write a verb that disagrees with its subject.

The problem is that when we focus on one thing other things go blurry. When we deal with phenomena that are very complex—that is, that have many levels—we do so by focusing on one level at a time. When a patient tells a doctor that he is feeling lethargic and apathetic, the doctor is confronted with a complex phenomenon. The cause of the trouble might be bacteria that have invaded the body at the cellular level. To look for the problem there, the doctor might take a blood sample and peer at it through a microscope. But the trouble might also be at the level of the organs—a heart that is beating too slowly—or at the level of emotions—a recent betrayal by a friend.

To explore any one of those or other levels the physician would need to, at least momentarily, ignore all the other levels. The human organism is complex.

So is writing. It exists simultaneously on many levels. We can pay attention to the level of ideas and meaning—the “big picture” and how the telling is organized. We can think at the level of style—such things as parallel structure and figurative language and active verbs and precise nouns. Or we can focus on the level of conventions—all the rules about capitalization and spelling and grammar. It’s difficult or impossible to do all these at once.

If a text really does have three levels (levels are actually features of our perceptions rather than of the phenomena perceived, but that’s an issue for another day) then we would need to read the text at least three times to proofread it well. Each time, we would consciously focus our attention on a different level.

In fact, careful writers often proofread many more times—focusing sometimes on the consistency of metaphors, sometimes on the verbs, sometimes on the nuances of a particular idea—and sometimes on commas and dashes.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2007 Michael L. Umphrey

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