Typo-Induced Fury

I was this close (imagine me holding thumb and forefinger at 1 mm distance from each other) to yelling at my graduate student. What he gave me with the words, “I am really proud of this manuscript,” was a completely unedited pile of $hit. He’s a fourth-year student, not a newbie. There were so, sooooo many typos (and an astonishing number of different misspellings of a crucial term), so many instances of subject-verb disagreement, so many missing commas… (I already complained about the nonexisting definite articles.)

His explanation? It’s the software’s fault. He was using some software (?!) that supposedly tracked and corrected all typos, and now it’s the software’s fault.

Bull$hit. It’s your fault.

Public service announcement:

There is no substitute for printing out your manuscript in a single-column, double-spaced format, sitting down without distractions, and carefully proofreading it, line by line — like I do ad nauseam, even though it shortens my lifespan (silver lining: it produces blog fodder). Then enter the corrections, print the corrected manuscript out, and f*ckin’ do it again. Repeat until you cannot find any more typos yourself. Only then should you consider wasting your advisor’s time with it.

(We have a deadline, which is why I have to finish this and can’t do additional back-and-forths with the student. But I am furious.)


  1. I work with bleeding hearts who would be all “Now, now, you can’t judge somebody for being bad at writing” and “Now, now, it’s your job to teach them to write.”

    I hate bleeding hearts.

  2. I am on the editorial board of a well established international journal in my field, and I see more and more frequently *** manuscripts that have been officially submitted to the journal *** (now to think of it also, papers I review for other established journals in my field as well) which are not much better than that you describe- with multiple typos, misspellings, missing punctuation, bad grammar, etc.
    Many of these submitted papers are by researchers and groups who should really know better and have no excuse! C’mon! I think that’s so embarrassing! It reflects very badly on the author. Even some of my own research collaborators do this with drafts of joint manuscripts they circulate to me, these are senior scientists with very badly-written papers, and it drives me crazy I get pushback along the lines of “who cares about the language and the grammar etc., why are you bugging me about the writing, it can be fixed later- it should be all about the science and the quality of the/our data.” But if the language and grammar are that bad, it tarnishes the whole thing (and besides, one could wonder, if they’re that sloppy with the writing, can you really trust their data as well?) In the case of the journal, I will send those papers back to the authors for rewriting, without putting them out to review- even if it gets me flak.

  3. Alex: I hate this $hit so much. It’s apparently nobody’s job to actually comment on writing except the PhD advisor’s. Not foreign language teachers’ job, not ESL teachers’, not college English teachers’ (for native speakers), not high-school teachers’. Apparently nobody has to actually fuckin’ edit the writing of any student, it has to be the job of the PhD fuckin’ advisor in the physical sciences. It couldn’t possibly be my job to, I dunno, teach them technical stuff. No, I have to forever insert “the,” fix comma splices, insert commas so readers wouldn’t die of asphyxiation trying to make it through a sentence, and just the goddamn fuckin’ fixable typos — any text editing software underlines fuckin’ misspelled words.

    And what exactly is the fuckin’ purpose of GRE and TOEFL, seriously?

    GoG: it can be fixed later

    This drives me bananas. Later, by whom? Why the hell do so many people think this is someone else’s job to clean up the paper? Everyone grew up with maids? If everyone cleaned up their own goddamn typos, the world would be a better place. Seriously. I am like you, I will return a paper to authors in my editorial capacity if the writing it too bad. Fuckin’ waste of everyone’s time.

  4. According to my colleagues, the purpose of the GRE is to discriminate against the under-privileged. That’s their answer.

    And while those of us teaching undergraduate classes can give writing assignments, giving bad grades for bad writing (e.g. in project reports) is apparently discouraging to first generation students. Or something.

    Really, everybody is so, so victimized that nobody should be expected to do anything.

    Except competent people. We should be expected to forgive everyone else’s incompetence.

  5. I spend a huge amount of time with undergrads in my applied electronics course, teaching them about sentences, paragraphs, and graphs. (Most of them have no idea what a log-log plot is for—in many cases after 3 years of engineering undergrad education!)

    I mark up about 300–700 pages a week of undergrad writing when I’m teaching the course. It takes forever, but I’m one of the few faculty here still taking the time to provide detailed feedback to students. These enormous courses make traditional contact-rich education more and more difficult to provide.

  6. Eldest (senior in high-school) is a voracious reader, and has a good understanding of grammar, punctuation, and the mechanics of writing. This year he’s taking AP English Literature and Composition, and I told him I was really curious if he’d be getting any feedback on writing and what type. So far (it’s mid-October) they have focused on the kids doing their own college admission essays, which is useless for Eldest because he’d been done with his since the beginning of the school year. The AP Lit and Comp teacher looked over his essay, which I had already edited for him, suggested two instances of slight rewording, both of which made perfect sense, and that was it. So I don’t know how much feedback the other kids would get.

    I can tell you that Eldest’s writing is OK, but there is definitely excess. Far too many adverbs, redundant descriptors, too many generic/vacuous statements, not enough specificity. Those are all things that I thought kids would already be alerted to by senior year of high school. I guess nobody anywhere teaches writing? Everyone’s supposed to learn to write by osmosis?

    I had an American-born graduate student a few years ago, who came to do a Master’s with funds from her government employer. I was shocked at the first draft of the thesis, and she said that no one had ever brought up that there might be issues with her writing. I remember that she had no concept of the compound adjective; she thought I was randomly hyphenating some words and not others when I marked up her draft. The whose thesis-editing experience was really bizarre.

  7. I do think the compound adjective is falling out of favor / usage and hyphen reduction shouldn’t be considered bad writing IMO. Yes you could write “free-range eggs” but you could also write “free range eggs” and everyone would know what you were talking about.

  8. I’m so glad to read I am not the only person who feels like she is slowly dying from this.

    I struggle to care about the quality of my students’ ideas when they have not bothered to use topic sentences or define concepts or results precisely. I take it personally when I have to remind them of subject-verb agreement, that adverbs modifying adjectives do not routinely have hyphens after them, that the fluff they wrote adds no real meaning beyond what they’ve stated already, that this clause is not modifying what they think it is. All of my students program a lot, and I honestly don’t see why the skills that appear to make them decent to good programmers don’t translate to good prose.

    The problems with some go deeper, too. I just checked a reference from a 1.5-page summary a trainee wrote and found it did not have the result he claimed, and it actually provided evidence he hadn’t mentioned for a different trend. The writeup is just reviewing our very linear logic and the half dozen relevant papers in our field. This was the fourth draft I had seen. I want to weep.

  9. @Tenure_track, Good programming does transfer to good writing (and vice versa). Both require clear thought carefully organized. It may be that your programmers are not as good as you think—is anyone actually reading their code and comments to make sure that the work is clear and well-documented? Most programs written by students are never read—CS courses have gone to automated grading systems that just check I/O behavior without checking the clarity and readability of the code.

  10. @gasstation, I should probably review their code more often. I generally just check when they are starting out. They always have to show me system tests and checks with synthetic data, and complex code is written in parallel by someone else, but no, I’m not always inspecting carefully. Their project repos are made public upon manuscript submission, which I always hope encourages them to keep things clean. I’m just assuming the code is okay. I probably shouldn’t.

    Checking their code would probably keep my skills from deteriorating too.

    The most proficient programmer I have–who quickly masters feats of bizarre syntax in multiple languages with very complex algorithms–is the native English speaker who doesn’t seem to realize how wordy and occasionally vapid her sentences are. It is very odd.

  11. “Wordly and occasionally vapid” sentences are a common bane in the writing of grad students who are native speakers. I would add “inappropriate tone”— jokey/cute/conversational when it’s clearly no place for that (in a technical paper) and you’d think that common sense (and having read technical papers) would dictate it anyway.
    I don’t know why, but somehow, somewhere, kids they pick up that wordy and vapid the way to write “well.” It’s probably insufficient (or unclear) feedback in pre-college writing, because I see it in Eldest’s writing and the writing of some of his peers (he has a buddy he writes with, who wants to become a writer, and I’ve seen some of their products).
    I don’t want to blame high-school teacher or college teachers, because there are enough people blaming them/us for everything.
    I want to see grad students who can write clear, minimally adorned sentences, where each sentence features some actual content, and where sentences are strung together in a logical, linear fashion. How do we pull that off? I guess by teaching them ourselves? There has to be someplace earlier in the education where this could be introduced. Grad school is kinda late. Also, I’m really not a language teacher, I feel there should be people who are better qualified for this than me.

  12. “How do we pull that off?”

    I guess for me it comes down to the simple fact that you’re going to write more or less what you read. Growing up I read a lot of novels, literature, plays… I wasn’t big into reading my textbooks. Though I loved science and could read the textbooks it wasn’t really necessary. In college I primarily read and wrote persuasive essays for non-science classes. In science classes I mostly read the texts only to clarify something (with a few exceptions). I read my first few scientific papers but barely understood them, so that seminars in Grad school was really where I first even read a lot of technical writing for the first time. My first paper was, as a result, something of a disaster of wordy vapidness… though I got better!

    So, I don’t know if grad school is late to learn technical writing… it seems normal to me not to even read a lot of technical writing until you have the background to understand it (which I think would be grad school for most fields), so it’s almost inevitable that most reading/writing budding scientists have done will have been for courses like english, history, etc. I try to do a couple primary lit papers in the upper level course I’m teaching but still that’s going to be a minority of the reading that students do.

  13. I don’t think that technical writing has the monopoly on succinct prose. Good literature doesn’t equal ‘wordy vapidness’ (LOL, great expression!) either.

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