The Long Version: For the benefit of this rant, let’s assume that your average op-ed piece is exactly one thousand words in length. From a strictly mathematical point of view, the writer of that piece could make ten single-word errors and still be writing with 99% accuracy. There aren’t a lot of professional fields that would turn their nose up to near perfect performance from one of their practitioners. Yet who wouldn’t doubt the aptitude of a writer that left ten mistakes in a 1,000-word article? Thus do I present the 1% paradox: in a world where “good enough” is often the benchmark for success, a writer must strive for the near-impossibility of perfection or be eviscerated as an idiot, neophyte or just plain lazy. It’s enough to drive a person batty as they pour over their work, constantly trying to find that last mistake. Lately my penchant for over-editing has been making me prone to aggressive behaviour a little moody. I think that is because I forgot one of my first lessons about the 1% paradox.
To understand the lesson, you have to understand how I wrote in 1994. Prior to ’94, I lived in a world of peace and contentment where everything that I wrote was perfect. Nobody ever dared to correct anything that I wrote. Thus at a very young age, I was convinced that I was a fantastic writer. Then came the eighth grade. Within the walls of my homeroom I met a teacher with a wholly sadistic approach to composition. To protect the guilty, I’ll henceforth refer to this individual as Mr. Halleck. That bald old bastard was as unrelenting as he was insidious; I owe him more thanks than I can likely ever convey.
Like many teachers in the mid 90s, he used mandatory journaling as a way to ensure that his group of rowdy adolescents weren’t teetering on the brink of any existential experiments. Having been disciplined for taking too much creative liberty with my journal entries, I was under strict orders to write on a topic of his choosing. In an effort to get through the tedious assignment as quickly as possible, I scribbled down my words without much thought. Fifteen minutes later, I had my face buried in a Battletech novel; unlike my other teachers, Halleck never let me get away with reading in class. Despite his shifting rationale behind the fiction moratorium, on that day the book ban held because he had a subsequent lesson in mind for me; the topic of that lesson was hubris.
Upon collecting my offering, he took out his red pen. Mr. Halleck worked that pen with the precision of a cardiac surgeon. No mistake, no matter how small, escaped his scalpel. The fact that he returned the page to me marked beyond recognition was shame enough. I remember thinking to myself, how could I be wrong about so many things? Yet, it didn’t end there. The old man made me stand before the class and read my writing as I wrote it, errors and all.
For what felt like an eternity, I lived in a world of my own split infinitives, plurals that should have been possessives, possessives that should have been plural, ad-hoc usage of there their and they’re and god-awful tense shifts. I returned to my desk thinking the ordeal was complete only to find out that he expected a rewrite that addressed every single error. So I rewrote it. Then he tore it to pieces again. This time, I wrote with too much passive voice. Convinced of my own brilliance, I took his passive voice complaints to mean too much past tense.
““It’s still passive,” he said in his unflappably confident way. Once again I saw my painstakingly crafted words marred with red ink.
““I changed everything to present tense,” I snapped back with more tone than I, or anybody else for that matter, had ever dared to offer Halleck.
““Yes you did.”
““So what the hell am I doing wrong?” Words spoken with such frustration that I didn’t even care that I violated the swearing dictum. I knew I was going to be spending the night rewriting this journal entry so what difference did it make if I did it during a detention?
““It’s still passive,” he repeated with a wry grin.
““Fine, I don’t know what that means.” The old man’s grin turned to a full smile. It was what he wanted all along; an admission that I didn’t know something. He didn’t call it a detention but I still spent half an hour after school learning the difference between active and passive voice. The next day I offered another submission, this one with the subjects of each sentence carrying out the actions of the verbs.
““Good, now we can work on your spelling mistakes,” he said as he returned the paper to me with a fresh set of red notations.
Toward the end of the year he returned an essay with a few scant crimson stains. Forthwith, I told him that I spent more time looking for mistakes after I wrote the essay than I did actually putting the paper together. Halleck silently nodded.
““So what am I supposed to do? Spend the rest of my life looking for the mistakes in my writing?”
““That’s not particularly fun way to spend your life, is it?” He had a point.
““No, I guess not. I want it perfect though.” The old man didn’t laugh often. In fact, he let it be known on day one that he never laughed at something unless he actually thought it was funny.
““It will never be perfect,” he said quietly. “But don’t let that stop you from trying; it’s what separates a good writer from the others.”
I hadn’t thought about Doug Halleck and his infuriating teaching style until the other night when I found myself crumpling up a printout that had (gasp) three typos across fifteen hundred words. I’m still not convinced that I’m a particularly good writer, but it’s nice be reminded that I always wanted my 1%.
See, Shaftoe does have a soul after all.