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Writing Tip from Peter Murphy

Why You Should Roof Pread

  From the March 2009 Murphy Writing Newsletter

Why is the new year celebrated on January 1st when everything is dead or frozen? For me it begins on the first day of spring, and one of my rituals is to take inventory of the stupid things I've done lately.

Misspelling Hemingway (I still think it should have two m's) in my February newsletter on revision rises to the top. I know, I know, I didn't Madoff anyone or hope President Obama fails, but I should have proofread what I wrote more carefully. That said, it gives me the opportunity to make the distinction between revising and editing.  

Let's imagine that you are building a house. Think of revision as the next-to-last step where you make sure everything works. You test the electrical, plumbing & heating systems, make sure the doors close and lock. Think of editing as that final tidying up. You wouldn't plant shrubbery before you hook up the water and gas to the main line. You wouldn't put up the curtains before you paint the walls. At least I hope not.

Same with editing. If you spend a lot of time checking your spelling and usage before putting your best words in their best order you will be less likely to change them.

I love what James Michener wrote about his own process. "I have never thought of myself as a good writer. Anyone who wants reassurance of that should read one of my first drafts." He doesn't get too worried over the nuts and bolts. "Why should I?" he allegedly confessed, "when my publisher pays someone to correct my grammar and spelling."

None of us are Michener and few of us can hire our own editors to clean up our messes. But there are lots of ways to proofread.

Murphy's Roof Preading Tips
(a.k.a. Murphy's Proofreading Tips)

Here are some of my favorite things to look out for!

  • Spelling - Use spell check, but beware of "spell check orphans" otherwise known as homonyms. Some of the most common are: its / it's, lose / loose, principal / principle, to / too / two and whose / who's.
  • Punctuation -
    • Quotation Marks - On this side of the Atlantic we put the comma and period inside quotation marks. Don't argue with me. It's a law. If you go ex-pat to Britain, then you can put it on the outside. Plus, you'll get free health care.
    • Commas - When in doubt leave them out. Where, do, they, all, come, from?
  • Usage - Why do most chiropractors say "Lay down" instead of "Lie down"? They must teach it in chiropractic school to confound retired English teachers. How much fun is that?
    • But then Amanda asked, "Why is the question mark in the above sentence outside of the quotation marks?" Here's the rule. If the question is part of the quotation, the question mark goes inside. The same rule applies to exclamation points.
      • Did the chiropractor say, "Lie down"?
      • Did the chiropractor say, "Why don't you lie down?"
      • Never mind, as long as he did not say, "Lay down."
  • Be aware of your own spelling and usage demons and double check them. I should have taken more time hemming and hawing over Hemingway.

Then when it looks like your darling is ready to go, try these steps before you make it public:

  • Be Patient. Haste makes stupid mistakes.
  • Print it out and read it again with pencil in hand.
  • Read it aloud if it's not too long.
  • The experts say to read it backwards.
    This never worked for me, but it might work for you.
  • Have someone else read it, especially if it's very important.
  • If you have the time, put it away and return to it a day or two later.

Murphy Writing of Stockton University  ●  May be reprinted for instructional use.

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