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Skillbuilding: Polishing Our Everyday Writing


From OnBoard - Newsletter of the BCG
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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.

PRESENTATION STYLE

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.

OBJECTIVITY

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.

CHECK POINTS

This final review should scrutinize our writing from several angles:

Clarity

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 down to.”

Standards

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?

Consistency

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 style sheet?

Grammar

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 courses?)

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.

USEFUL AIDS

Dumond, Val. Grammar for Grownups. New York: HarperCollins, 1993.

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, 1987.

Kay Haviland Freilich, CGRS

This article was originally published in OnBoard, BCG's educational newsletter and is protected by copyright. Individuals may download and print copies for their personal study. Educators are granted permission to provide copies to their students as long as BCG, OnBoard, and the appropriate author are credited as the source of the material. Republication elsewhere is not permitted.



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