Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Error, error, where are you hiding?

Instead of editing for error, try editing for probability of error. This is the second of our three tenets for Eagle Eye copyediting training. (The first was “brain off” and the third is “professional restraint.”)

We call this second tenet “hot zone” editing.

Where errors tend to lurk

Eagle Eyes in our 25-hour training program (spread over two months) learn to look for hot zones. These are writing situations where errors tend to fall in.

When editing your own work, you can get by not knowing or ignoring certain types of grammar, usage, punctuation and style rules. That’s because you can re-write to avoid a problem, or because you don’t have a particular problem – like which/that or misplaced modifiers -- in the first place.

For example, I usually avoid “lay/lie” on deadline because it makes me nervous and I don’t want to look it up. I also rewrite to prevent awkward-looking punctuation combinations.

When re-writing is a worse response

But when editing the work of others, you don’t get to re-write, especially when proofreading a document that has already made it through an approval process that includes the legal department, a product manager and a marketing vice president.

Good editors know how to find and surgically fix errors that normally wouldn’t crop up in their own work.

Here’s a sample of items from our hot zone list:

  1. Hone (when it should be home)
  2. Between (when it should be among)
  3. Product names (gotta get them exactly right in every reference, but account teams tend to stop looking at them in a document because they’re overly familiar with them)
  4. Introductory clauses (that may harbors misplaced modifiers)
  5. Each of ______s (each is singular, even if what follows the “of” isn’t)
  6. Comprised of (no such phrase; we recommend changing to “composed of”)
  7. Appositives (often the second comma is left off)
  8. It’s/its (even people who understand the rule still make the mistake)
  9. VIPs and other plural acronyms (no apostrophe)
  10. No “Mr.” in AP style

How to get sensitized

Trainees do exercises that sensitize them to these words and situations, kind of like Pavlov’s dog, minus the saliva. When EEs see these words, a little bell should go off in their head, reminding them that it might look fine on a fast first read, but there might be a hard-to-find error embedded there.

At first, they go over documents with a highlighter, marking hot zones without asking themselves whether the usage is correct. Then they use the highlighter on a first pass, and edit on a second pass. In time, they don’t need the highlighter.

As I explained in a previous post, our brains are wired such that we are all inherently bad proofreaders. So we have to learn to “turn off” our brains and scan for probability of error, not actual error.

More on the third tenet in a future post.