The Man Farted from Behind a Tree; Bee Shur Too Proofreed Carefuly

April 23, 2010

Our errors are surely not such awfully solemn things in a world where we are so certain to incur them in spite of all our caution, a certain lightness of heart seems healthier than this excessive nervousness on their behalf.
• William James

There it was on my desk circled in red on page two of the newspaper I was supposed to have thoroughly proofed in my first assignment on the way to becoming an editor, part of a series of tests that would determine whether I moved on to greater responsibilities at The Daily Sun in Warner Robins, Georgia. Foy Evans, the owner, read the paper every day, looking for just such mistakes, letting us know, kindly, that they were not acceptable.

The man farting from behind a tree was supposed to have darted, of course, but alas, I left him there, passing wind, for all the town to read about. Fortunately, it was my only mistake that day and I kept moving ahead.

Proofread. Seriously. It sounds easy, but it’s not. The eye often sees what it wants to see, what ought to be there. Here’s a little reading exercise I use with one of my classes:

Aoccdring to rscheearch at Cmabride Uinevertisy, it deosn’t mttaer in what order the ltteers in a word are, the only iprmoetnt thing is that the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a total mses and you can still raed it wouthit porbelm.

I find errors in my posts just about every time I go back and read over them. Words are missing. Tenses are incorrect. I’m missing a comma or a period or I’ve used a semi-colon incorrectly. And I know better. I just didn’t see these things, even with careful reading. Particularly difficult to catch are the words I’ve word processed incorrectly, god for good, thee for the, and other things that won’t end up underlined with red.

I’ve collected a number of favorite student errors over the years. Number one on my hit parade is “Master o Farts in Teaching,” closely followed by a student writing about World War II who wrote that his father “served on a mime sweeper.” San Francisco was once a hotbed of street mimes and I’d love to have seen those annoying white-faced entertainers who silently impeded my progress swept out of the way.

It’s almost impossible to catch all your own errors, so here’s my advice: First, put some time between you and your work. Don’t do everything at the last minute so you won’t have time to reread. (Do note that even as I word process these words I know the virtual impossibility of this actually happening for most students.) Next, read your work out loud to someone else to help you catch incomprehensibility. You’ll spot some of it and so will the listener.

Then have at least one friend read your work. Two is better, but again, they are probably working on their own last-minute things. Ask someone to check for consistency of style too, particularly on long papers or on resumes—use of fonts, type sizes, underlining, centering, indentions, and other things should all “match.”

Here’s something not to do: don’t give someone a paper to proof in class right before you hand it in. What do you expect that person to do? I was in a number of classes as an undergraduate with another English major who often asked me to proof her papers at the last minute. I never knew what to say about the many things that needed to be fixed. Fortunately, the internet now makes it much easier to ask for and give peer input.

Finally, be willing to listen. When I was working as a graphic designer, I used to design employment packages—personal letterheads, resumes, and the like. I took an order from a man who’d been working as a prison guard in “penile institutions,” an error he made multiple times throughout his draft. I corrected his error (it’s penal institutions—penile means of or referring to the penis). He came in to look at a proof, got extremely angry, and left, refusing to pay for anything I’d done. Too bad for him. Worse than farting from behind a tree.

Have you ever completed written work and found an error when it was too late to do anything about it? What do you do to make sure your work is as nearly perfect as it can be?

I have made mistakes, but I have never made the mistake of claiming that I have never made one.
• James Gordon Bennett


One comment

  1. This one made me laugh out loud! One of the most enjoyable parts of correcting student writing are the errors and how “Interesting” they can make the reading of stories. It is even more fun when you have the opportunity to hand the paper back to its owner and read the error to them in context.

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