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Ways to improve writing, so that one needs less time spent on proof reading?

I've been a bit annoyed, because it seems that using a "write, then proof read" -approach seems ineffective, because then one must read full text. And the checking might become more complicated to handle, if one does not fully keep track of what one has checked.

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    You have unrealistic expectations about how much time proofreading (and writing) ought to require. I spend several days proofreading each of my papers. Commented Sep 6, 2021 at 14:55
  • @AlexanderWoo I just find it a hassle. And I think there should be more effective methods for dealing with it. It reminds like having to manually check for something for which one'd expect there to be "efficient algorithms" already. Something that I've thought: progress in writing only after you've checked previous (does not work, since later observations might change earlier ones), proof read in "chunks" (does work, but cannot reveal e.g. content errors that exist relative to different parts in the text).
    – mavavilj
    Commented Sep 6, 2021 at 15:23
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    I used to be someone who could regularly write full conference papers in one fell swoop with only 1-2 proofreading rounds, and few fixes necessary. Conditions for that were: I had all results. I was the sole author. I had opportunity to get in the mood. I was fully concentrated and in the zone (i.e. no checking of internet/email/social media at all). I was super meticulous to write correctly right away, so that grammar and content were correct at sentence level and made sense immediately. I am no longer able to do so, as too many duties pull at me now. But the last point remains. Commented Sep 7, 2021 at 19:34
  • I understand your question is about the writing stage, but one way to make proofreading faster is to have a computer script flagging common issues, see for instance: matt.might.net/articles/shell-scripts-for-passive-voice-weasel-words-duplicates/
    – Alexis
    Commented Sep 8, 2021 at 7:16

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This depends to some extent on the kinds of errors that you tend to make while writing. If you are thoroughly practiced in such things as sentence structure, punctuation, correct use of adverbs and such (as exemplified in The Elements of Style), then there are a lot of errors that will never appear (or rarely) in your work.

However, for the content of what you write it is almost impossible to keep errors out without several passes over the work. The problem is that we take a double view of what we write; an overall, strategic, view, and a microscopic, tactical, view. They sometimes conflict.

Often enough, when you are writing, your mind is in "strategic space" and you just write the wrong thing, thinking that you actually wrote something different - and consistent with the long view. The opposite can also occur.

Even proofreading isn't a panacea. In reading your own work, you often "see" what you thought you wrote, not what you actually wrote. This is partly (at least) of how the eye scans the page and coordinates with the mind.

I've written quite a lot of textbooks and always make mistakes, often bone-headed mistakes; reversing mathematical operators, for example. They are hard for me to find, but another person, reading the book will find them quickly and they will be totally obvious. One of the things holding up a long-term project is that I don't have a proof reader. I've made several passes over the text and still find some head-slappers.

So, you can, with practice, avoid mechanical mistakes, but content is much harder to get right other than with several tries.

Even beyond the technical errors, of course, is that a writer has a certain context that the reader probably does not. It is therefore easy for the writer to make inappropriate assumptions about the understandability of the work. You need a special "hat" to wear to try to catch those sorts of mistakes. Again, an external proofreader has a different context and can usually help. A co-author once described my writing as "precise" but sometimes at the expense of understanding. It was enlightening.


Note that The Elements of Style is out of copyright and you can find a pdf on the web various places.

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    The Elements of Style is one of the 10 best books ever written. Every author should review it before sitting down to write. Commented Sep 6, 2021 at 21:38
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    @DavidSmith what are the other 9? ;-)
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Sep 6, 2021 at 22:44
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    Let me add that the "hat" you mentioned is one that every teacher should wear when preparing for class. It's much too easy to talk to a class the same wayI talk to myself (but louder) and assume that I'll be understood. Commented Sep 7, 2021 at 0:37
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    I strongly encourage anyone who thinks of The Elements of Style as an authoritative source on English grammar to read this: lel.ed.ac.uk/~gpullum/LandOfTheFree.pdf Commented Sep 7, 2021 at 12:15
  • @Dan Romik. Personal choices depending on discipline. Strunk & White belongs on any writer's list. Commented Sep 7, 2021 at 19:08

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