Dross, and avoiding it

Only twice in five years of freelancing have I been sent a document so poorly written that I simply couldn’t edit it. The first time this happened was a year or more ago; the client’s first language was Sinhalese, which is some excuse (but how he managed to hold down a job in university administration is hard to work out). The second time was last week.

The client was a third-year university student so must have submitted many successful essays, yet the text he sent me was outrageously bad; it was twisted, circular, impenetrable gobbledegook. His essay had no title, no headings and no obvious conclusion; the document’s central idea couldn’t be discerned; not a single sentence made perfect sense, and no paragraph was coherent. Many words seemed to be inserted at random.

I’ve edited material for Chinese computer scientists, Romanian architects, Saudi Arabian radiographers, Emirati surveyors, Fijian policemen, Sudanese sociologists, German immunologists, Russian nanotechnologists, Iranian physiologists, and Australian postmodernists and post-structuralists; I was always able to grasp their intended meaning sufficiently to be able to improve their work. But not with this client. I asked if his first language was English (thinking it was probably Arabic, or possibly Russian – he seemed to have a slight accent); it was, so that didn’t go down well. Had he randomly cut and pasted it from online text? – he hadn’t, and neither had he translated it into Cantonese and back, which seemed the only other explanation for his tortured prose.

The client clearly wanted to believe that his subject was technically beyond me, and wasn’t at all happy to hear that his writing was woeful (not that I actually told him that, but that was the unavoidable message). If he hadn’t hung up in a huff, I would have given him the following tips:

  • Give your document a title that conveys the topic.
  • Even if you don’t include it in your final document, write a sentence under the title that begins something like ‘This essay is about … ’. This will help to remind you of your subject and what you want the reader to take from your argument.
  • Use subheadings (even if you remove them later) that summarise the text beneath them. Examine your subheadings on their own and ensure they follow a logical sequence.
  • Read over your document carefully, and if possible get a colleague to read it too. If it doesn’t make sense to you or someone who knows your work, it’s unlikely to make sense to anyone else.
  • Look at your concluding paragraph – does it match your introduction? Your document should end by wrapping up the argument you outlined at the start.
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