The three levels of proof reading

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What should you be looking for when you’re proof reading your writing?

I think you need to look at things on three levels.

Firstly there’s the macro level – the bigger picture, if you will.

  • Does the piece do what it sets out to do?
  • Is the argument clearly and coherently expressed?
  • Have I missed out anything vital?

Then there’s the micro level:

  • misspellings
  • missing words
  • grammatical mistakes.

Third level is somewhere in between. I’d define it as ‘making sure you haven’t accidentally written anything daft’.

Let’s take a couple of examples. I love this Groucho Marx joke:

One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I’ll never know.

In this case, the sentence construction is deliberate. But when it isn’t, being ambiguous like this can inadvertently take away the power of anything you’re trying to say.

I was particularly reminded of this recently when I was reading the back of a charity Easter card. It said:

Proceeds from the sale of this card enable [our charity] to help communities find sustainable solutions to issues they face. Fred used to travel for days to find work for insufficient income. Through [our charity] he now tends his own land, selling his produce and spending more time with his family.

All very laudable. Unfortunately, all I could think was ‘why did Fred travel for days to find work for insufficient income? Wouldn’t it have been better to look for badly paid work nearby? Or, better still, why didn’t he look for well-paid work nearby?’

Of course, I knew what the writer meant, but that isn’t what they said.

I’ll leave you with a couple of other examples of ambiguity in action (with thanks to Strunk & White’s Elements of Style via Wikipedia and the Writing Center at the University of Wisconsin for finding them):

Being in a dilapidated condition, I was able to buy the house very cheaply.

Freshly painted, Jim left the room to dry.

Mrs. Daniel sews evening gowns just for special customers with sequins stitched on them.

What are your favourite examples of badly constructed sentences?

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