Polishing Our Everyday Writing
- Newsletter of the BCG
Kay Haviland Freilich, "Polishing Our Everyday
Writing," OnBoard 4 (September 1998): 24.
Genealogists are always writing. Reports for clients or
for our files. Articles, newsletters, and books. Notes,
abstracts, and transcribed documents. Lectures, handout
materials, and overheads.
We think we're fortunate because we can now do all this
labor on a computer. With a few keystrokes, we can revise
without redoing pages. Word processing software even checks
our spelling and grammar.
So how do they happen all those gremlins that crop
up after the report has been sent to the client and the
article to the editor? Or those that glare from a wide screen
while audiences groan?
They happen because we're rushed. They happen because
we trust the computer to transmute our thoughts into a printed
page and automatically format them. They happen because
we overlook important finishing touches: editing and proofing.
A written project is not complete without a thoughtful
review for presentation style. For mathematical problems
computers can, indeed, replace the human brain. For verbal
applications, they can't. They are a preliminary tool to
use as a paper takes shape. Ultimately, the human brain
and eye must take charge.
Ideally, editing and proofing should be done by someone
who has not seen our project. Yet time and costs can make
this ideal impractical. There is a limit to the number of
times we can hire an editor or impose on the best of friends.
Even when we can enlist an outside person, we may lack time
for a thorough job.
Acting as our own editor and proofer is a worse-case scenario.
We know what we wrote - or meant to write - and it is not
easy to divide our brain into compartments that check the
former against the latter. Besides, we're quite attached
to our own way of presenting information.
To overcome these handicaps, we must become our own worst
critic - approaching our work as though we have never seen
it before. Letting our material age for a few
hours or days between writing and checking can help us make
that crucial transition from author to nitpicker.
This final review should scrutinize our writing from several
Is the material presented in a logical manner? Have we
written with the reader in mind? Do we need to explain genealogical
concepts or jargon? Or, have we overexplained, numbing our
readers with detail or making them feel they have been talked
Have we followed accepted research practices and techniques?
Are sources completely documented and copies carefully identified?
Are facts separated from theory and analysis, with each
clearly labeled? Are weaknesses in our records noted? Did
we remember not to alter any material within a quotation?
Have we used the same spelling for each proper name throughout
the project - or else used quotation marks around the deviancies?
Have we checked place and personal names for proper spelling?
Are dates for a single event consistently typed? Have we
reread our typed dates against the original to be certain
we have not transposed numbers? Have we used the same format
for citing the same sources? Did we prepare and follow a
Have we used complete sentences? Are any phrases separated
from the words they refer to? Is sentence structure parallel?
Are items in a series presented in parallel form? Have we
used punctuation correctly? Is the tense of verbs consistent
throughout a passage? Do the subjects and verbs in each
sentence agree in number? (Do we need to invest in a writing
guide or style manual to review our high school grammar
Spelling and typographical errors
Have we verified the spelling of any words not in the computer's
dictionary? Have we checked to be sure that the right word
appears, not an unfortunate homonym? Have we mistakenly
trusted our computer to know when our text misuses a correctly
spelled word - e.g., trail instead of trial;
or on instead of one?
An attractive, error-free presentation will not make up
for material that is based on poor research or faulty conclusions.
However, a presentation that is laden with technical errors
will detract from a project that reports fine research.
The extra time spent on editing and proofing will reflect
our pride in all we do.
Dumond, Val. Grammar for Grownups. New York: HarperCollins,
O'Connor, Patricia T. Woe is I: The Grammarphobe's
Guide to Better English in Plain English. New York:
G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1996.
Venolia, Jan. Rewrite Right! How to Revise Your Way
to Better Writing. Berkeley, Calif.: Ten Speed Press,
Kay Haviland Freilich, CGRS
This article was originally published in OnBoard,
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