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Your Guides to Excellent Writing

Proofreading electronically produced text

by Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere

 

 

Computers are wonderful tools for writers Ė or are they?

Thereís no question that these marvelous mechanical wizards make writing easier. They take much of the tedium out of producing text. They help us avoid common errors in spelling and grammar. They enable us to move, shape, edit, and revise what we have written with a few deft keystrokes. They allow us to adapt and reuse our words in countless ways.

But as many of us have discovered to our chagrin, computers also create problems. Although they reduce the incidence of certain errors, they increase the likelihood of others.

Hereís a list of common errors to watch for when proofreading word-processed text:

Copy/cut miscues. The difference between the cut & paste command and the copy & paste command is a single keystroke. As a result, it is distressingly easy to litter your text with chunks of unwanted or repeated text.

To eliminate this type of error, make multiple passes through your document, first concentrating on the broader issues of content and development, then concentrating on the more specific rules of spelling and punctuation. If you try to proofread on both levels simultaneously, you are less likely to notice, for example, that a particular paragraph appears both on page two and on page seven of your document.

Sequence errors. Computers make it so easy to rearrange or eliminate items in a list that you sometimes forget to renumber the series. When proofreading word-processed text, be sure to check for errors in the sequence of numbers or letters. A gap is perhaps the least obvious error of this type.

Editing scraps. Computers invite us to try out different word choices to see how they sound. Unfortunately, in the process of arriving at the text we like best, we sometimes leave behind scraps of earlier versions.

For example, Iím embarrassed to admit it, but the following sentence appears in my first collection of columns: "Can you hear where how the unnecessary phrase breaks the momentum of the sentence?" When I publish a second edition, I will choose either the wording hear how or the wording where Ė but I wonít leave both choices in my final copy.

Template tipoffs. One of the wonderful attributes of word processing is the ease with which you can adapt boilerplate documents for multiple uses. The risk, however, is that you may not completely expunge all vestiges of the earlier versions. Common oversights involve dates and dollar amounts. The most embarrassing is using the wrong name.

Page-numbering peccadillos. Automatic page numbering is a godsend to weary typists, but forgetting to enter the suppress command on the first page results in a nonstandard format. By convention, no page number should appear on page one of a document; page numbering should begin appearing on page two.

Hidden headers. Like automatic page numbering, headers and footers make life easier when it comes to arranging text on the page, but because they normally are not displayed as you are writing, you may not think to revise or update the information they contain. Sometimes what you donít see on your screen is what you donít want when you print your document. Failing to update hidden text is an especially common error when working with templates.

Beyond these specific errors, of course, is the general tendency to trust the accuracy of anything produced by computers. Perhaps dazzled by their wonderful capabilities, we are sometimes lulled into a kind of word-processing, grammar-parsing, spell-checking stupor. We begin to think that if the computer produced it and looked it over, it must be all right.

 

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