How close to perfection can you get? (Ask Dr. Wobs)

Graphic: BK via Flickr

Today’s question is about the pursuit of perfection — not only how to do it, but when it makes sense.

Dear Dr. Wobs:

On perfection: how close to 100% error-free can an editor aspire to? What tools can help a mere mortal get a little closer?

Martha Pings

Perfection is a dangerous goal

Dear Martha:

This question is as much philosophical as editorial. What is perfection? As I’ve described in this space, editing includes developing ideas, improving structure, making paragraphs and sentences better, copy editing, and proofreading. Perfect grammar is worthless with flawed ideas.

There is no platonic “perfect” piece of text that accomplishes its goals and is technically flawless. Like a mathematical asymptote, you can get arbitrarily close to such a result, but can never actually reach it. But this philosophy annoys me; I am a practical man. So I’m going to help you determine what a successful approach to perfection looks like and how to apply the best possible resources to reach it.

First, ask what you’re trying to accomplish.

The only purpose of business writing is to create a change in the reader. Once you know what that change is, and what it will take to accomplish it, you can determine how best to concentrate on perfection.

I recommend starting each writing project with a ROAM analysis. Answer these questions:

  • Readers: Who is the audience?
  • Objective: What are you trying to do?
  • Action: What do you want readers to do?
  • iMpression: What will they think of you?

Now figure out where flaws will interfere with these elements.

For example, if you’re attempting to get a new product plan approved, you’ll want to concentrate on the objective and action. That means the plan itself and the way it’s laid out are crucial, and have to be as close to perfect as possible. Focus on ideas and structure. A grammatical error is less likely to be a problem.

If you’re sending an informal email to five other members of your department with whom you work frequently, then a typo is not going to kill you. If your readers are the executive team at your billion-dollar company, a typo will damage the impression you’re making and set back your career. So the readers and impression can tell you how important grammatical perfection is.

Next, assess your deadline and resources

Real-world writing exists in a world with limited resources. You typically have a fixed amount of time, money, and people. A realistic assessment of these will tell you which types of perfection to attempt.

Basically, the longer your deadline and the greater your budget, the more you can bring in experts to help approach perfection.

If you have three months to work on a project and a little money to spend, you can budget time at the end for a copy editor to find all the technical and grammatical errors. If you’ve got two weeks, you’ll be better off using your editorial skills to do the copy editing along with the word editing. The result won’t be as close to perfection, but with limited time and resources, you may not be able to achieve that.

Similarly, a longer project might allow you to get consultation from technical experts or colleagues who are strong on ideas or structure. You may have time to do more brainstorming at the front or more reviews at the back end of the process. If things are more compressed, you as editor may need to fill most of those roles yourself. Be aware of your blind spots (Spelling? Math? Organizational politics?) and tap other resources to back yourself up.

One thing is important to keep in mind here: managing reviews is challenging. Only 33% of the business writers in my recent survey said they had an effective process for collecting and combining feedback. To manage the schedule best — and keep perfection in view — create a rigorous process and allow extra time for harmonizing reviews.

Finally, be paranoid early. Concentrate on ideas and structure in the planning stages; insisting on reviewing and editing the concepts in the author’s fat outline. Most flaws at the end of a writing process begin with laziness or inattention in the planning stages.

Tips for perfection

As you get close to the end, what can you do to approach perfection without blowing the schedule? Here are a few tips:

  • Use a copy editor (or two). Copy editors see things you’ll never spot; they’re trained for it. If you are a copy editor, consider having a second copy editor review the text at the end. Two sets of eyes will see different problems. (I used two copy editors on the manuscript of Writing Without Bullshit because I was mortified about any errors slipping through.)
  • Get a naive reader to review your content. A lot of writers have their spouses review their work, because they’re probably intelligent, but not steeped in the content. Any reviewer who hasn’t looked at the text as often as you will spot things you’re missing.
  • Use technical tools. Word has ’em. So do sites like Grammarly. Don’t use these to replace your judgment — use them to show you areas where you can apply your judgment.
  • Jar your brain with some proofreading hacks. To catch things your brain is inclined to miss, apply some of my 13 top proofreading hacks. These include letting the content sit for a day, reading up from the bottom, viewing it with different margins, reading a printout, or reading it out loud.
  • Concentrate on the areas you just edited. Every time you edit something, you may introduce another error. So pay extra attention to the edits you just made and how well they sit (or don’t sit) in the context of the rest of the writing.
  • Determine the kind of flaws you can accept. At some point, the cost of continued editing exceeds the cost of missing the deadline. What are going to be able to live with? If it’s an accounting document, you had better not have any math errors. If it’s your bio, it ought to be free of factual errors about your history. But if it’s a blog post (like this one), a few typos won’t destroy you forever. All writing is a process of compromise. You’re better off if you decide where to make those compromises.

Got a question? Send it to “Ask Dr. Wobs” and if I answer it on the blog, I’ll send you a signed copy of my book.

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