Tiptoeing Through the Typo Minefield

So you’re writing an article about new laws. Being thorough, you do a computer spell check when you’re finished. Now, thanks to technology, you’re good to go.

Too bad the word you meant to write as “statutes” came out as “statues,” and the computer didn’t think to correct it. Because statues is also a word. And because computers don’t think. That’s your job.

Consider yourself lucky: you could have typed “pubic” instead of “public.” It happens.

You have to be careful; there are so many ways to get caught with your pants down when it comes to professional communications. You may be writing about policies, but end up with polices. Resigned can become re-signed. Just. Like. That. Or you might type a word according to how it sounds and end up with sense instead of since. Or peak instead of pique (or peek), woe when you meant whoa.

Editing is integral to good writing, and it has many levels, from structural to proofreading. The more important the document, the more crucial it is to have an outside editor assist you in your cause. Even as simple a task as proofreading may seem, it’s difficult to perform properly on your own work. That’s because your brain knows what you meant to say and will read something that isn’t actually on the page or screen. Your brain is just trying to be helpful — helpful like a lame friend who doesn’t know how to tell the truth you need to hear.

One way to avoid an ugly confrontation with yourself is to proofread your work backwards, from the end to the beginning. This forces you to read each word individually instead of scanning whole sentences. Still, reading backwards is most effective if you are only looking for incorrectly spelled words and less so for catching correctly spelled, but incorrect, words. So you might also employ the following trick: search for “danger words” after you’re finished proofreading. For example, if you intend to use the word “public” be on the safe side and search for “pubic” when you’re done. Similarly for “manger” if you use manager in your publication, “contact” for contract, “county” for country. Or vice versa.

A sloppily edited piece makes you look bad and may even cripple your objective. If you don’t have the time, inclination, or aptitude to proofread (or do other editing) properly, contact PubArts. We guarantee a 24-hour turnaround on small projects. We’ll help you out. Unlike that unreliable so-called friend of yours, your brain.

Keeping Up With the Joneses

Sometimes when Monday rolls around and the blog is screaming for attention, you can’t help but feel a little “dial up” in a broadband world. Gotta keep going, gotta keep up … but, oh Lord, how?

You haul yourself to the computer to feed the little monster. You’re motivated by the fact that seemingly everyone else is doing it, breeders who have put a little bit of themselves out there to carry on. Technorati says there are more than 100 million blogs out there and proliferating quickly — along with Facebook pages, Tweets, and whatnot. One must keep up with the Joneses — and the Ramirezes, Chans, and Nahasapeemapetilons.

What’s the reward for this ceaseless communication? Recognition, influence, and customers (if that’s your bag). I seek an engaged readership and the off-site SEO (links from other sites) that catches the eye of search engines. But that all comes only after you nurture your little bundle past its vulnerable (to say nothing of messy) infancy. At this point, most people avert their eyes. That’s OK, I don’t take it personally. I don’t think my baby’s ugly.

At some point, however, it really may take a village to raise this child, so I hope others can assist the little fellow’s long-term prospects. Which isn’t a hint for birthday presents, but an invitation to contribute some content with your comments.

Words Create Pictures in Our Minds

It pains me as a word slinger, but it’s images that populate our craniums not words per se. Words are merely the “raw materials of thought,” as David Schwartz puts it in The Magic of Thinking Big. He’s right: we do think through images. Yet words are magical nonetheless, for they conjure up the all powerful images that fill our heads and establish how we feel about something. As such, they have to be handled with care.

“When spoken or read, that amazing instrument, the mind, automatically converts words and phrases into mind pictures,” Schwartz writes in the book first published in 1957. “Each word, each phrase, creates a slightly different mind picture. … The mind pictures we see are modified by the kinds of words we use to name things and describe things.”

When you tell people that a project has failed, the words create images of defeat, disappointment, frustration, anger, and grief. To encourage people to try again, Schwartz suggests you say instead: “Here’s a new approach that I think will work.”

“Suppose you say, “We face a problem.” You have created a picture in the minds of others of something difficult, unpleasant to solve. Instead, he writes, you should say, ‘We face a challenge,’ and you create a mind picture of fun, sport, something pleasant to do.”

Schwartz encourages us to turn resolutely away from pettiness and negativity, and to be “big thinkers” who transmit optimistic pictures in their own minds and in the minds of others. Be careful what words you use, spoken or not. Schwartz’s message resonates because it rings true. His book hasn’t sold more than four million copies for nothing.

Talking Big and Thinking Big

Big words, small words, little gray words and florid ones too: I love them all. Not necessarily equally, but each has its place and time.

The common thinking goes, however, that only pretentious or insecure individuals would use what used to be called five dollar words (back when that was a lot, not a latte). I disagree. Golly, what’s wrong with an evocative term like “palimpsest” or “gimlet-eyed” when they are just the right ingredient? (For that matter, what’s wrong with “evocative”?) Instead of rolling his eyes, shouldn’t the reader turn his gaze to a dictionary?

The point of communication is to connect with others, absolutely. The point is not to talk down from your lofty pile of words. Here’s a point of view from an author I greatly respect:

“The person who says “adamantine” when in plain talk he means “immovable” or says “coquette” when we would understand him better if he said “flirt” may have a big vocabulary,” writes David Schwartz in his great book The Magic of Thinking Big. “But does he have a big thinker’s vocabulary? Probably not. People who use difficult, high-sounding words and phrases that most folks have to strain themselves to understand are inclined to be overbearing and stuffed shirts. And stuffed shirts are usually small thinkers.”

Ouch. It’s true that what matters in communication is the effect words have on others, not the size of the vocabulary … but still can’t we luxuriate in the richness of the language? Once in a while, just a little? Broccoli benefits from a little béchamel now and again, right? (Béchamel? Happy to oblige: http://bit.ly/bechamelsauce.)

Internet vs. Books

The Internet makes so much information available so quickly and to so many that it feels like a fount of endless and everlasting knowledge. It’s not.

To know is to learn. The Internet feeds conversationalists, but can’t compete with books for forming students’ minds.

But, wouldn’t you know it, there are two schools of thought on the matter. One, exemplified by Nicholas Carr in his book “The Shallows,” thinks the Internet is a flashy, link-happy distraction the erodes the ability to think deeply.

Backing that up, researchers recently found that the disadvantaged students who read books (of their own choosing) over the summer had significantly higher reading scores than similar students who didn’t. Another report on 27 countries found that kids who grow up in a home with at least 500 books stay in school longer and do better. Meanwhile, a recent Duke study of a half-million 5th through 8th graders in North Carolina found that the spread of home computers and high-speed Internet access coincided with major declines in math and reading scores.

Another group maintains the Internet benefits education because playing computer games and conducting online search heightens attention and the ability to process information.

New York Times columnist Richard Brooks recently adjudicated this debate and shared the interesting observation that it’s not the mere presence of books in a child’s private life but the change in the way the students see themselves as they build a home library. They see themselves as a distinct group called “readers.” [http://nyti.ms/booksforlearning]

The book reader begins as a novice and builds his knowledge brick by brick, layer by layer. The egalitarian and youth-oriented Internet scoffs at such hierarchy and at the book learner’s respect for the authority of masters. These different cultures foster different types of learning, as Brooks points out.

The Internet is great at keeping you “with it” on current events, figures, and trends. But literary culture – with its requirement that you defer to greater minds and respect the authority of the teacher – is better at cultivating the mind. It ranks the greater over the lesser, the important over the unimportant.