Do you worry that someday you’ll make a big, conspicuous error and embarrass yourself publicly?
Stop worrying about that.
If you write a lot, you almost certainly will make such an error someday, but you shouldn’t feel too embarrassed when it happens. You see, if you have made a habit of clear writing, your loyal readers will chuckle at, and immediately forgive you for, the occasional big error.*
If you must worry about something, worry about leaving a residue of small errors in every paragraph, bogging down your reader. Most readers do not forgive that.
A recent article, “Arne Duncan vs. Oklahoma,” illustrates what I mean. Here are the first four paragraphs of the article (minus the links), with my comments:
“In yet another stunning example of his lack of knowledge about life outside the elitist Washington bubble, [United States Secretary of Education] Arne Duncan came out swinging at Oklahoma governor Mary Fallin during a press conference yesterday (6/9) for signing the bill (HB3399) to end the Common Core State Standards initiative in Oklahoma.”
The phrase “came out swinging” is ambiguous: What exactly did Mr. Duncan say or do?“Apparently, pure politics caused the governor (current Chair of the National Governor’s Association, who along with the Council of Chief School Officers propelled a set of education standards into national lexicon) to abandon Common Core for her state. Apparently the thousands of parents who wrote letters, sent emails and called Governor Fallin’s office urging her to sign HB3399 during the interim between passage (5/23) and signing (6/5), have been downgraded to political widgets in a game of chicken between a state and the federal government.”
The reader has to read quite a lot of this paragraph before he recognizes that the author is being ironic.“It’s interesting how quickly the anti-Common Core forces, once vilified as ‘conspiracy theorists’, ‘fearmongers’ and ‘liars’ have become vindicated since – and by Duncan’s own hand no less. Duncan’s latest temper tantrum can’t help but make it readily apparent to even the passing skeptic that there must be something to the legions of arguments connecting Common Core and federal overreach into public education.”
The reader wonders how these “anti-Common Core forces” are related to “the thousands of parents who wrote letters…”“Truly, no one (including the Fordham Institute or Bill Gates) has been able to effectively mount an argument supporting the stake the U.S. Department of Education has in Oklahoma’s education standards. Really, what does Arne Duncan care what standards Oklahoma uses to educate its children? What difference can it mean to Duncan?”
It is difficult for the reader to infer a connection between the first sentence and the second and third sentences. My guess is that the author is trying to say, “The U.S. Department of Education has no stake in Oklahoma’s education standards, so Mr. Duncan should mind his own business and stop threatening Governor Fallin.”The rest of the article is similarly confusing. In almost every paragraph, something impedes the reader: an awkward sentence, an overloaded sentence, an ambiguous verb, a confusing transition, a misplaced modifier.
The Takeaway: Put your energy into making every paragraph readable and clear. Your reader will notice and appreciate it. If you leave a residue of small errors in paragraph after paragraph, your reader will tire of slogging through it. He may even vow never to read another piece with your name on it.
*I relate this personal example, in all modesty: Decades ago I was a PR man for Honeywell. One day, while I was visiting with the editor of a trade magazine, I noticed a Honeywell press release posted on a bulletin board. Looking more closely, I recognized it as a release in which I had made a grammar error – in the headline! I groaned. The editor smiled, shook his head, and said, “We see errors like this every day. This one was worth posting because it was from you.”