January 29, 2013
Tech Pubs Tuesday: Catching Regressions in Writing
Like everyone else, I make plenty of huge embarrassing typos. Over the years, I’ve tried to discover patterns in how and when I make basic errors.
Perhaps the most common scenario is when I start out with a paragraph that’s correct, and then decide to wordsmith a sentence or clause within that paragraph. For me at least, this is a huge DANGER ZONE moment — there’s an excellent chance that fixing that little passage will actually spawn more errors.
Just to pick a random example, I might start with a paragraph like,
Perhaps one of the most common scenarios is when I start out with a paragraph that’s correct, and then decide to wordsmith a sentence or clause within that paragraph. For me at least, this is a huge DANGER ZONE moment — there’s an excellent chance that fixing that little passage will actually spawn more errors.
Then I decide that the lead sentence would be stronger if I said, “the most common” instead of the more hedging, “one of the most common.” So I change the paragraph:
Perhaps the most common scenarios is when I start out with a paragraph that’s correct, and then decide …
Oops! I forgot to change “scenarios” back to singular. There’s something about going back and focusing on a tiny section of text that makes me forget about overall coherence at the sentence and paragraph.
If this kind of thing trips you up as well, you can do one of two things.
Option A is to do what many professional writers tell you to do: write your entire rough draft without any editing, then go back and do a big editing sweep. Editing entire passages all at once means you’re less likely to make this kind of coherence error.
Unfortunately, I’ve never written that way. I am a writer who backtracks. Always have been, always will be.
So Option B is to cultivate a sense of hyper-awareness anytime you go back and refactor something you’ve just written. This is the approach I take. If you go back and fix up something you’ve just written, the hairs on the back of your neck should rise.
If it helps, you can think of it this way:
- each sentence in a paragraph is like a function
- all the sentences in a paragraph work together like a collection of functions in a small class or module
- if you tweak a sentence that already works, that’s like changing the arguments or the return value of a function that already works. So… are you sure you didn’t screw up something else that depends on that sentence?
You might be wondering, “Are there test suites for sentences?” In fact, yes, there are! These test suites are called “technical copyeditors,” and they’re very expensive to run (even once).
So in lieu of that, your next best option is to go back and eyeball the rest of the paragraph. At a minimum, carefully read the preceding and following clauses for tense agreement, etc. That should catch most of these “regression” style writing errors, but keep in mind that the best defense is always to get another pair of eyes on your work.