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Get Your Own Lousy Proofreader

Do the words “Can you look over my paper” fill other writers with as much pleasure and dread as they do me?

I guess somewhere between my younger sister once wanting me to completely rewrite a school report for her and the people who only want to know about the typos, I just sort of lost it. These people aren’t writers and don’t realize the conundrum. They probably just think, “Oh Ren’s a good writer. She can look over my paper and tell me if it’s okay.” How can I blame them? It’s so …er, logical. My Husband didn’t have a clue either.  That is, until he asked me to “look at” a homework essay.

Something just seems to come over me when I take a red pen in my hand, or read text in the screen of a word processor. Sometimes it happens when I read through text on-line or even pick up a paper-back at the store, but I really try to suppress the urge. It’s tacky to try to sell a book second-hand after I’ve underlined half the passive sections and all the info dumps. Maybe it’s a survivalist skill learned through years of demanding writing teachers and firing squad critique circles. I don’t know, but I always felt like I was on the bottom of the pecking order.

Maybe it started when my Mother confronted my high school writing teacher at a parent-teacher conference. “How can Ren be a writer?” she demanded. “She’s horrible at grammar. Her spelling is so-so and her grades in English are terrible.”

She was right. Not to mention I hated English classes with a passion. I resented required reading where you crawled through a chapter a night so that you could pass the nitpicky quiz the next day asking what color so-and-so’s shirt was in order to prove whether or not you actually read it. I hated essays and research reports. What fun could it be to simply regurgitate information? Some times I had fun with it, such as when I was assigned to analyze the target audience of Sports Illustrated and I wrote a sarcastic piece about the lazyboys, big screen tvs and fancy cars appealing to spectator wannabes… my teacher decided to talk to me privately about that one. However, even she had to admit that I had done all the research and given all the proof. She gave me a B grade but offered to give me the full A if I would just strip it of the attitude. Fat chance. I took far more pride in writing something with humor and spunk than an “A” written on my report card. Oh well, so much for my school grades.

I also spent years fighting outlines, thesis statements and using sources. Truth be told, I think I started to really respect the power and value in such until I had escaped college and helping my very logical minded Husband in English papers and work on marketing text for his business ventures. I’m still at a loss regarding MLA style and citing sources.

Just the words “technical writing” still makes me shudder. On the other hand, after I was hooked on writing fiction, I discovered that there are some writing skills that did apply. Lots of them. If I ever wanted my stories to be worth publication, I had to buckle down and learn to apply them. So I trained myself to go back and attack my writing without mercy. I have spent years of pulling it apart, axing weak sections, weak dud characters and trying to re-envision the potential locked within my stories and characters. My methods may not be pretty or even efficient. I’ve trashed the whole manuscript for Hall of Masters twice now and started again from near scratch. But each time I somehow pieced it all back together with sweat, duct tape and a heavy-duty stapler, it was stronger and it was something I could be proud of … until I learned more, saw weaknesses I hadn’t noticed before and the process began again. It is rough, painful, but when I see the growth in the work, and in myself, I know it’s so worth it.

These friends who come to me. They see a homework assignment, a report, essay or business newsletter. Just another paragraph. In a week they may not even remember having written it. I try to remember that, but it’s hard, especially when I see potential. I’m certainly no grammar expert, but when I tear into it, asking about tone, target audience, word choice and varying sentence structure, sometimes their eyes just glaze over. I know I’ve really gone to far when I ask, “What’s the point of this paper?” and like a deer in the proverbial headlights they say something like “What do you mean? I told you, it’s for school.” Or “To get people to buy my product.”

I want to help people, especially fellow writers, but sometimes I just get too involved. A fellow writer asked for a chapter review and I spent four hours dissecting it sentence by sentence. I was simply treating it as I would if it were my own story … After that, no matter how much you try to explain that you did it because you saw potential and really like the story – they don’t believe you. Oh, it doesn’t happen all the time, but enough to rile the unsuspecting.

I hate scaring people off or overwhelming them – honest. Like I said, I started off as a lousy writer. My first draft started with a “dark and stormy night” and headed downhill from there. In most cases, I don’t believe in a perfect draft or stellar first version. I believe in the power of serious revision.

To avoid ruffling too many feathers, particularly of non-writers, I stuck a deal with my Husband that anyone who asks for me to look school papers or marketing material over, that he has to check it out first. If he knows I would slaughter it, he would give the feedback. He’s far more diplomatic than I.

Even knowing the risk, my Husband does sometimes still ask for my full writing help on major projects, admitting that they are stronger once I help him piece it all back together. On the other hand, usually when he or I ask the other to look at something, we usually ask, “Can you look this over and see if I made any stupid mistakes?” Then I know he’s mostly just concerned with typos, missed words and really confusing sentences. Although, even then I confess that if it’s on a word processor, I usually end up discretely tweaking this or that…

Obsessive compulsive?

Or simply trained habit run amuck?

Either way, consider yourself warned.

About Ren Black

Part-time novelist. Weekend artist. Full-time Mother. Ex-poet. Perfectionist by training. Compulsive researcher sporadically. Prone to fits of linguistic commentary Unorthodox Renegade occasionally. Sarcastic by habit... Dreamer Always... Consider Yourself Warned

19 comments on “Get Your Own Lousy Proofreader

  1. Writing can be a bloody business, eh?
    …I like your style, Ren! 🙂

    • Exactly Julia, and if you want to be anything more than a books of half written drafts and computer files to amuse yourself… well, ya gotta have tough skin. For me, it came like callouses protect where skin continually rubs raw. It seems I’m not the only one that learned the hard way.
      Thanks.

  2. You mean I’m not the only critic out there? Chuckle.
    I was almost thirty before I began to internalize all that “nonsense” spouted by English teachers about modifying phrases, tone, audience, etc. I knew it. I got A’s. I just didn’t care. Trying to communicate my thoughts to someone other than myself through writing had honestly not occurred to me until I that year I started really trying to write a book. Based on your post, I suspect we writers are the exception to the vast rule of people writing “just to get by.”
    All that to say: I feel your pain, my dear. You do not suffer alone.

    • Yep! Apparently we’re both in common company. It is nice to know others understand.

      Actually, although many seemed to think my writing was a waste of time (cause it monopolized most of it as a teen – I mean, who needs a ‘life’ when ya got dragons!) I think it saved my schooling. For the sake of building a “better” world, I eagerly signed up for all those “general” classes that so many kids groan about. Psychology, sociology, Ecology, geography… I was always looking for how things like that would help me write better. I gladly took more than required. Of course, I also loved the side stuff like archery, theater etc. That’s why I went through near 5 years of college but didn’t get my bachelors – plenty of credits, but kept changing majors and my interests spanned too much. One day though.

      Still was never an “A” student. I admire anyone like you who can stick to it like that. Good luck on your book!

  3. Ren, I honestly believe that like youth, grammar rules are wasted on the young.

    I used to be terrified of the critic’s scapel, but soon realized my chances for publication would be vastly improved with a nip and tuck. (Though learning to perform surgery upon oneself is a whole ‘nother animal. You have my admiration!)

    Ah, what a comfort that I do not suffer alone…and a goodly supply of chocolate eases the worst of the pain.

    • hmmm, chocolate… er, actually I’m trying to cut back… one of these days I’ll do a post about my Husband, the health nut by birth.

      What’s almost scary is when you finish a draft and then desperately want someone to give it a good slaughtering ASAP. I guess it’s that idea of get the pain over with so that the healing (or piecing back together) can start. I know I don’t write a perfect draft so it’s almost a relief when someone says “This scene is a total drag – it was confusing and needs more action.” It’s frustrating when a reviewer finally points out an issue and then my Husband nods and says, “Yeah, that section always bugged me.” Grr – then why didn’t you tell me three months ago and I could have changed it already!

      And when I do think of ways to improve a section sometimes I don’t want anyone (especially a publisher) to read the old version because I know that I can do better!

      I agree that it is difficult to attack your own work sometimes, but it seemed to me that I could never get enough feedback, or the first couple chapters get polished while the rest has so much dust you can count each sets of readers’ footsteps. Wonderful book – Self-Editing For Fiction Writers; How to edit yourself into print.
      Thanks again Julia for commenting and sharing.

  4. Lol… is it horrible of me that I counted seven gramatical errors in this post??

    • See! Proof! The war continues for me! Off I must needs be to battle…
      However, I find it ironic that you highlight your gramatical remark with two question marks … besides, I don’t know about your spellchecker, but mine hates your word “gramatical”. So there! Lol.

  5. I hated English in school too. I think because it was forced writing, on such-and-such a topic, so-and-so many words, within this-n-that amount of time. Ick.

    But even when I was eight or nine, you just had to give me an empty notebook and a pen, and I filled it with stories lickety-split. Goes to show that school English isn’t for writers. Not really. The stuff I’ve learned since embarking on authorship has been of a completely different nature. Absolutely nothing in common at all.

    I’m rather surprised that you found things that did apply. How diverse are the ilks of mankind, eh?
    🙂

    • I didn’t mind English at school so much, but I did find the writing assignments very dull. The teacher would usually tell us what to do and then give us time to start working on it towards the end of the lesson. The assignments generally involved formal letters to banks or doctors or whatnot. My imagination, however, had other ideas. I soon developed the habit of writing a mad spoof during the lesson and then doing the actual assignment at home. I’m sure the teacher wondered what I was up to sitting there scribbling madly and chuckling to myself. If I could pinpoint the time when I got interested in writing fiction, I think it would have to be during those lessons.

    • Yeah, took me years to admit any connection, and even now, I admit that the average English class is a sad and miserable place to learn the ropes of fiction writing. Some teachers really make a difference though. But aren’t English classes geared more toward non-writers? Trying to pound basic communication into the kids. In my personal opinion, the entire public schooling system could benefit from a study in relevance. But, I will resist the temptation to spiral off into that rant here.

      I certainly agree with your first sentiment – ick.

  6. Actually, I switch back and forth between fiction and academic writing quite easily. I don’t see what the big deal is. Basic structure and grammar are the same, the only difference is in style and voice. In fact, good fiction can often be broken down and outlined like a five part essay. Think about it.

    • I really admire that ability, for sure. I may have come around to seeing some of the value of essays and such, but I fear it’s partly because no one is prodding me to write any. I think part of it is my natural rebellion to predictability. That and my aversion to conformity. As a fiction writer, I probably will never manage a consistent/living income, but I hear technical stuff can earn a decent living.

  7. Writing is most definitely bloody business. And it’s really hard to not go full-on-editor with someone just wanting a cursory glance-over — or with those people who truly have huge potential, but have major insecurities about it — how do I really help them, and not scare them off??

    It’s a real balancing act.

    • Very true.
      It’s almost scary that the more potential you see, the more you want to comment – which of course can be what overwhelms them.

      I’m still struggling with that balance. And with the balance between spending time reviewing others or working on my own writing. *sigh* So many balancing acts.
      Thanks, Heather.

  8. […] I haven’t broken the compulsive reviser I trained. The punk that wrote “Get your own lousy proofreader” is in full swing here. Since I sent off the first 500 words … I changed them. Okay, not all of […]

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