The perils of english prose


English prose is a minefield of potential errors. From minor mistakes such as the confusion of ‘to’ and ‘too,’ ‘their’ and ‘there’, and ‘whose’ and who’s’, to the more complex problems of construction concerning tense, number and correlation, you have to be very alert to produce a polished piece of writing. This is especially difficult when you’re already grappling with ideas which seem to hover just beyond the boundaries of articulation and refuse to let themselves be securely enmeshed in nets of words. As capable a wordsmith as T.S. Eliot himself was able to say:

. . . Words strain,

Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,

Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,

Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,

Will not stay still. . . .

It may not be all that often that one feels this way. When trying to convey difficulty ideas in an exacting format, however – as Eliot was familiar with doing – the challenges of language can be daunting.

The benefits of editing and proof-reading in this process are manifold. A good editor will be able to tell you where your arguments or phrasing become unclear, repetitive or disjointed. These are issues which are often difficult to detect in one’s own writing: because you are so familiar with your own thoughts, it can be easy to take something as self-evident when, to another person, it might not be. Having someone indicate where you need to spell certain things out in more detail can be invaluable in this sense. Repetition presents a similar problem. Very often I encounter verbatim rephrasing of sentences or even whole paragraphs in the course of a single piece of writing. When you’re focused closely on the nuts and bolts of a document, it can be difficult to keep track of such things, and they easily slip under the radar. As with the assumption of the self-evidence of certain points, a lack of specificity in the links between points, paragraphs and chapters is a common error which occurs for the same reasons; connections which one takes for granted may often need to be made explicitly for a reader approaching your material for the first time.

Beyond this, an editor can provide useful guidance and advice on issues such as tone, tempo, characterization, register and organization, and can be a useful collaborator in what is often a difficult, lonely process. You want your work to read flawlessly – it’s worth getting help to achieve this.

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