The proof of the pudding

By | 12 January 2012

If there is one job in the whole world which most of the world would find tedious beyond measure, it is surely proof reading.  On the other hand, those who do enjoy the tireless trawling through every word on the page, noting every comma and colon and scrutinising every inverted comma around quotations and titles, probably love it.  Putting aside the possible overtones of OCD in such cheery souls – and they usually are cheery, positively gleeful about every tiny error discovered and exposed – most of us can only thank them humbly and, possibly, say to ourselves, ‘If that is a special skill, they are welcome to it.’  Somehow it’s hard to visualise a Hollywood blockbuster featuring the exploits of Beady Eyed Ben with his Magical Proof Reading Pupils.
Ah, pupils, pupils.  How many errors do they commit to print in their long school careers as they struggle to become competent writers as well as readers?  And how many miles of red ink are spun out on the pages as teachers correct them?
Actually, these days, possibly not a lot.  My generation was brought up on a hearty diet of every written exercise having scarlet lines under the misspelled words  and the requirement to write each of these words correctly five times at the bottom of the offending essay or whatever.  I say ‘whatever’ because even in those halcyon days, well before the appraisal of teachers or Ofsted inspections had been invented, this method of pushing us all towards absolute literacy was practised by all teachers in all subjects, not just English.  Granted it was a grammar school, but still, the intention was to turn out 18 year olds who could spell.
I know not the philosophy behind the method, but it seemed to work – a list too long would be spotted by the mate beside you and there would be guffaws – ‘How did you get that wrong?  It’s easy peasy!’ – and you would mutter and swear you wouldn’t make that mistake again.  And most of us didn’t.
By the time I taught English, the method had fallen out of fashion.  I remember watching, with a large group of English teachers in one of our leafy counties, a presentation in which we were shown a child’s first attempt at an essay in their first week at secondary school.  It was full of errors, all tackled with the red pen.  A second piece of work from the same child appeared – just as much red ink, but the child’s work was half its previous length.  A third piece appeared on the screen – red ink still spattering, but the child had written no more than three lines.
The presenter virtually said, ‘See what you do?  You wield that red pen like a sword and a child’s confidence dies under it. What damage have you done? And how dare you?’
How indeed.  Sadly, the presenter offered no other solution to what a teacher might well think was a really tricky part of the job – you’re supposed to teach English, that means reading and writing, what do you do if a child keeps submitting work  which is misspelled to the point of incomprehension?  And what do you do with a GCSE candidate – and GCSE arrived to supplant GCE/CSE at around the time of our alarming presentation – who can write wondrous and even poetic things, but can’t spell? (Answer: dock 5 marks for poor spelling, the answers themselves may be right.  And the consequence of that is to send into the world young people who have their C or above in GCSE English but cannot spell to employers’ or universities’ satisfaction because for whatever reason, they did not learn to spell and no one bothered to teach them.)
My own best (worst?) story of the effort to prove that written skills mattered was spending a lesson with Year 11 Set 12 (honestly – there were 12 categories of ability in English in that school; as Head of English, I was timetabled in an even-handed way for Set 1 and Set 12) endeavouring to offer a template letter of application for a job they might want to apply for when they left school a couple of weeks later.  No joy.  Most of the class of 17 said they would work for their fathers; one said, ‘If I want a job, I’ll phone them up.’  Game, set and match.
All of that is well before dyslexia as it is now understood was recognised and accommodated, and even longer before text speak – the abbreviations! – and computers with spell-checkers arrived to make the production of the written word – surely – easy peasy.  The computer has perhaps been to literacy what the calculator was to numeracy – ‘Miss, I’ve got a machine to do that – I don’t need to know!’
As a Head of Department and then Deputy and Head, I seemed to spend many hours checking the written reports for pupils produced by teachers.  Not a good time.  These were highly intelligent, highly educated people, wielders of the red pen not its victims, yet the pressure of report writing in a short space of time at a tired end of term produced an embarrassment of error.  There was never time for the conversation which would help explain the mistakes – ‘I’m exhausted – the baby hasn’t slept for a week!’  – or plan for them not to happen in future – ‘Please exchange your reports with a colleague for proof reading before they go to the Head.’  The Deputy got cross there were errors at all, teachers got cross the Deputy had found them, and the Head quailed, waiting for the parent who would return one that got under the wire with a sarcastic sticky-note asking how the school presumed to teach his daughter when the teachers could not even spell!!!  (His exclamation marks, not mine.)
If things are easier domestically and in schools with computers and spell checkers, they seem to have disimproved in printing.  As a student journalist, I had the joy of spending half a day a week in the print shop with an elderly Dubliner type-setting my copy for the student newspaper –  hot metal individual letters, upside down and backwards and – I swear, though it may be golden nostalgia – never a spelling mistake.
Now I send thousands of words to printers every month and cannot believe the errors which come back to me for proof reading.  Sometimes, on the third or fourth reprint, errors which were not there in the first couple of copies have magically materialised.  Now, in all fairness, you don’t expect new ones in what should be final copies you are just  scanning to ensure the last lot of corrections got made.
Maybe human beings will always make mistakes.  A colleague who had worked in the City once told me his firm – big, important, revered – was officially happy to see up to 3 errors in any page because to spend the time proof reading for greater accuracy was way too expensive.
Maybe I should take a leaf out of their book, shrug, accept human frailty and the unreliability of printers and just chill.
And I will, as soon as I finish checking this article…

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