“Am a perfectionist and rarely if if ever forget details.”
“Instrumental in ruining entire operation for a Midwest chain store.”
“Received a plague for Salesperson of the Year.”
Thanks to Fortune magazine for those fine examples of resume writing that are likely to end up on a bulletin board but not lead to a job interview. About 20 years ago, when I was on the journalism faculty at Penn State, I started looking into the nascent field of psychology that deals with human error. Why, researchers were asking, do otherwise intelligent people make foolish, expensive, even fatal, mistakes?
Why do nurses put the wrong medication in an IV? Why do doctors operate on the wrong knee so often? A few years ago, about eight wrong-site surgeries were voluntarily reported each month to the Joint Commission, which accredits hospitals, but they represented only the most serious cases, with 70 percent of them resulting in death, according to the Los Angeles Times.
On a less serious note, but more to the point for our purposes, why do so many writing blunders reach readers, leaving a potentially harmful impression of he or she who taps away at the keyboard? As I tell my writing seminar participants, you never get a second chance to make a first impression. Any critical reader—and writers should always assume that the audience is reading their text closely and carefully—has a right to ask, upon seeing an egregious grammatical or spelling error (particularly someone’s name): “What else is wrong with this? Can I even trust the content to be accurate?”
A psychologist pioneering in human error research (sorry, but I don’t remember his name) told me that he and his colleagues had learned that errors emit from our brains randomly. For lack of a better term, they called these emissions “erronium,” and they tend, not surprisingly, to accumulate under stress. But he added that the errors don’t have to go into actual use or production, so to speak, thanks to redundancy.
To illustrate: In one of my journalism jobs before Penn State, I covered civil aviation, particularly airline safety. Over the decades since World War II, airline cockpits have gone from four aviators (pilot, copilot, flight engineer, and navigator) to three (minus navigator) to two (take out the flight engineer)—all thanks to advances in avionics, or aviation electronics. But I seriously doubt that we’ll ever go to just the pilot. No matter how automated the cockpit, safety still demands two sets of eyes and two brains to monitor the system.
The same can be said for the control panels at nuclear power plants and the nurse assigned to make sure that the orthopedic surgeon is about to open the correct knee. But nursing positions are often understaffed, which leads to stress, and therein lies the problem.
What about writing? Redundancy is at the heart of any newsroom, with at least one editor and usually more scrutinizing copy from even the most seasoned reporters. And considering the thousands of words that flow through the process every day, the system works fairly well.
But then there’s you, the writer. How can a single individual be redundant? The answer is that you can't, not if you take your work seriously. Hemingway was dead on when he said, “Everyone needs an editor.” The stark truth of the matter is that we invest so much of our ego in our writing that we can't be objective about what flows through our fingers onto the keyboard.
So don't count on yourself or a friend to “give it a read.” Hire a pro. Next time, I'll discuss different types of editing.
Finally, I can’t resist another resume entry from Fortune. Editing isn’t the problem, but the thinking that went into it is intriguing: “Personal interests: donating blood. Fourteen gallons so far.”
Dave Griffiths a free-lance writer and editor who travels widely to do writing and media and presentation skills training for clients ranging from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to the Veterans Administration to nonprofits such as the Red Cross and private companies needing help with technical writing and written sales proposals. His professional background is journalism, covering national security for Business Week magazine and teaching at Penn State's College of Communications. Dave has a degree in English from the University of Virginia and a Master in Journalism from the University of Missouri.
Nancy E. Randolph operates Just Write Books, publishing Maine books by Maine authors telling Maine stories. Randolph quickly developed a reputation as a publisher of quality Maine books. An active community member along with two others she founded and serves as a member of the board of Save Our Swinging Bridge.Org to ensure the maintenance of the historic Roebling designed and built bridge connecting Topsham and Brunswick. She co-chairs with Cathy Lamb the Androscoggin Brunswick-Topsham Riverwalk project—building a 2K walking/biking intown loop. To contact her directly: email@example.com.