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Hearing the Music: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Writing (Again)

February 27, 2020 by ProofreadingPal in Writing Guides

For the last few months, I’ve used this space to talk about techniques of poetry and rhetoric, and how you can apply them to your everyday writing. There’s been some pretty technical material—and a lot of Greek vocabulary—but mostly we’ve been talking about wordplay; fun and games.
That’s not our usual mandate at ProofreadingPal. The value we bring, for most clients, lies not in the arty, expressive side of writing but in our expert knowledge of the craft, of the rules, of the proper way to do things. Not in games, and certainly not in fun.

But grant me a few last words here to argue in favor of fun.

Because here’s something it’s easy to forget: Writing is supposed to be an occasion for joy.

But it sure doesn’t feel that way for people who don’t consider themselves writers, those of us who occasionally communicate in writing for work or school. Words are serious business, and there’s a lot riding on them. You might be depending on that thesis paper to secure your master’s degree, or hoping that quarterly report will win you a big promotion. Fun is the last thing on your mind.

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And so, in this anxious mood, you produce cautious prose. Forget about killing your darlings; they never even make it onto the page. Any time you catch yourself thinking about writing something amusing or ornamental, you squash that thought down and stay on message.

By far the most painful aspect of this anxious prose is its redundancy. Unsure of their ability to communicate their ideas, inexperienced writers try to hammer them home by sheer repetition, sometimes within a single sentence. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to dismantle a construction like “The results of the study showed a 10% increase in occurrences, a considerable rise as made clear in the study.” (That whirring sound is poor William Strunk rolling over in his grave.)

And when you’re done, you’ve got a document so punishingly unmemorable that even your thesis advisor or your boss won’t get through the whole thing. The only people (beside yourself) who will ever read your work from back to front are your first and second proofreaders here at ProofreadingPal. Your intended audience will most likely only read through the abstract, check your bullet points, and skim the rest. At most, they’ll struggle through out of a sense of professional duty. They certainly won’t be reading for pleasure.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. There’s no rule saying that academic articles can’t be written in muscular prose, no law that business writing can’t have a sense of forward momentum and the occasional memorable line. No one’s expecting A Song of Ice and Fire here, but there’s no reason your informational writing can’t aspire to the readability of, say, Time magazine.

Achieving that sort of readability starts with trusting your readers to follow your train of thought, and trusting yourself to steer it. There’s no fancy vocabulary necessary, no dazzling displays of technique. Tell your story cleanly, and tell it once. Resist the urge to summarize at the end of a section: If your audience has been reading attentively, they won’t need any recaps, and if they’re inattentive they won’t bother with them anyway.

Keep in mind the great crime novelist Elmore Leonard’s rule for good writing: “Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.” Just say what you need to say, plainly, and leave it at that. A second set of eyes, of course, will help you to determine whether you’ve done the job.

Every now and then, when I’m proofreading some laborious piece of academic writing, I’ll come across a passage where the author stops second-guessing and lets their real voice comes through. There’s no burst of verbal fireworks, usually—just a moment when the author quits hedging and speaks plainly from the heart. It may be only a single paragraph, but the writing has a confidence that’s missing from the rest of the piece. Maybe for the first time, it feels like there’s a person writing, someone with passions and opinions, someone with quirks. Not just a client: a person.

I call those moments “hearing the music.” Music and language are made of the same stuff: rhythm and sound, consonances that go together. Yes, writing is a task, but it’s also a form of individual expression. Sing the song that only you can sing, and have faith in those who hear. You’ll rarely be disappointed.

Jack F.

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