The Bug Force

It's quite obvious that there are forces at work which deny rational explanation -- at least in terms of the laws of nature as we commonly perceive them. This can be seen most readily where any kind of proofreading is required. Is there anything we can do about it?

All joking aside, should we always be encouraging students to produce perfect work? And if not, how many errors are acceptable?

P1030955.JPGNow, I don't want to detain you longer than necessary, so I'll come straight to the point: the short answer is "no". True, you can take a proofreading course, seek advice in a forum, have an extra pair of eyes, and seek advice from the experts. Nothing makes any difference, ultimately, because you're dealing with the unknown. The real  issue is this: how many errors are acceptable? I'll come back to this point shortly.

What proof do I have that proofreading is the playground of a malevolent spirit? Simply this: no matter how many times you proofread a document, there will always be one more error. This is even enshrined in a "law" of computing, albeit in a different context:

Lubarsky's Law of Cybernetic Entomology: There's always one more bug.

You, or someone else, will discover the flaw. Eventually. My research into this phenomenon over many years has led me to the inescapable conclusion that you will discover it in one of the following types of circumstance:

  • When you have printed off 400 copies.

  • When you have just mailed it in response to a job advertisement.

  • When you have just emailed the third version of it to an editor you have never worked with before.

Does this mean that you can never create a perfect copy? Not exactly, but even if you manage to thwart the forces of non-good at the proof-reading stage, the gremlins in the software you use will launch a second wave attack. How else would you explain things like:

  • A document that looks perfect on screen does not retain all the contents of the page when you print it out.

  • Page-numbering develops a mind of its own.

  • Sometimes, if you try to place a caption beneath the picture instead of above it, Word goes berserk. For example, once it caused the two paragraphs under the caption to disappear altogether.

  • Once, a colleague said that her document included a copy of a spreadsheet which looked fine on the screen, but kept printing out with most of the left hand column missing.

Is there anything you can do about it, being serious for a moment? After all, one doesn't like to be completely fatalistic. Well I do three things:

  • Run the spell-check.

  • Read through it one word at a time (and boy, is that tedious!).

  • Cajole someone else to read it.

Ultimately, none of this will make much of a difference (see Lubarsky's Rule, above), but at least you will not need to castigate yourself over it.

So, being realistic, what this really boils down to is: how many errors are acceptable? This is a serious question, and one which I don't think tends to be addressed in schools.

Students are encouraged to produce perfect work for their e-portfolios or coursework. But that is unrealistic. What we ought to be doing is encouraging them to make a judgement about the acceptable number and type of errors given the nature of the piece of work in question, the audience for whom it is intended, and the purpose of the exercise.

There are, I believe, viable alternatives to the proverbial view that if a thing is worth doing it is worth doing properly. Consider the following:

  • If you do something perfectly, there may well be an opportunity cost involved, ie the cost expressed in terms of the next best thing foregone. For instance, is it better for me to obtain a grade A in my Art exam and fail everything else, or to obtain a scattering of Bs and Cs across a range of five subjects? The answer will depend on a number of factors, such as whether I want to get into Art college or become a vet.

  • We owe it to our students, in our any time, anywhere  society, to nurture a "good enough" attitude. Don't get me wrong: I am a perfectionist, as no doubt you are too. But there comes a point (three in the morning, perhaps, or the third draft) where we all say:

    "That will have to do, and if they don't like it, they can do it themselves!"

  • In a related way, there is also the Law of Diminishing Returns. After a certain point, the benefits from continuing to work on something are outweighed by the costs in terms of fatigue or opportunity cost (see the first point).

  • Sometimes, imperfection is good. Once, for example, I completely messed up something I was doing whilst demonstrating some software to a class of teachers. They actually found it reassuring, and it gave them confidence. The logic was along the lines of:

    "Well, if an expert like Terry can make a stupid mistake like that, it's ok for me to do so too without beating myself up over it."

I don't know the answer to the question: "How many errors are acceptable?". It's a judgement call. Our job as educators, I suggest, is to help students make that judgement as part and parcel of the skill of writing and presenting for different audiences.

This article was first published on 1st August 2008.


I received an email recently from Cate Newton of the SR Education Group. Cate says:

"The Bug Force" is an excellent article for writing, editing, and proofreading.

My interest in proofreading and writing for students sparked an article that was just published on our website, Guide to Online Schools, here: We are trying to build up useful resources for students of all ages and this is our most recent. We’ve compiled a list of the most useful grammar, proofreading and writing style guides on the internet into one, easy-to-navigate article.

I've looked at the article and I have to say Cate has probably undersold it. It is full of links to writing and grammar guides, and looks immensely useful. The only caveat I would add is that it is mainly (though not exclusively) for a non-British audience. So whilst the processes and general principles of writing and proof-reading no doubt apply everywhere, you should exercise caution when looking at non-UK grammar texts, as there are significant differences.

In this context I should recommend Grammar Girl. This is an excellent podcast full of useful tips, and advice on common errors. And although the podcaster, Mignon Fogarty, is either American or Canadian, she usually gives the British version of grammar and sentence construction -- which is, of course, the correct one ;-).

Does any of this matter? I think so. Just because writing for the web is, arguably, less formal than other writing, and blogs are fine for publishing off-the-cuff thoughts, writing should still be error-free as far and possible, notwithstanding my comments in the article, and pleasant to read.