In a previous lifetime, I managed a fancy-schmancy restaurant in Portland, Oregon. Whenever a staff opening came up, one of my jobs was to cull through the hand-written applications (dozens, if not hundreds, depending upon the open position) and select 10 or 12 of the applicants to call in for an interview. I would then direct the three most promising to my boss, who would make the final decision.
This was a daunting, time-consuming task, one usually performed at off hours (read: late at night when I was pooped or at home where I wasn’t getting paid for it), so I quickly came up with a streamlining process. I would grab an application and start reading, not paying much attention to the person’s name, education, qualifications, or job history. Instead, I would focus on confusing grammar, bizarre punctuation, and creative spelling. If I started finding instances of these−along with simple crappy handwriting−the application would get round-filed and that would be that. This simple trick allowed me to take a pile of a hundred or so applications and whittle them down to a manageable number fairly quickly.
Unfair you say? Not seeing the forest for the trees? Throwing the baby out with the bathwater? Maybe. Maybe all of these. But behind my seeming disregard for peoples’ hard work and accomplishments was some sound logic: a sloppy application was indicative of a sloppy thinker, and no one I wanted to be working with on a busy Saturday night.
This is a concept that later, when I began teaching composition at a community college, I would attempt to pound into my students’ heads without cessation. It doesn’t matter what you have to say, I would tell them, if your work is full of spelling, punctuation, and grammatical boo-boos, your credibility is in the toilet because your reader is going to take one look at your careless writing and wonder if you are being equally careless with your facts.
Granted, every student−like every job applicant−is not born knowing what to do with a semicolon. But the creation of clean, error-free copy begins with the grudging understanding that whatever it is that you just wrote probably needs some help. In the case of a restaurant job applicant, this could be a simple as finding a literate friend and having them take a look-see. But work produced at the collegiate or professional level likely needs the attention of educated and trained editors. Professional proofreaders. Not being able to write clearly is no crime, but publishing important work that has not been seen by an experienced editor can be fatal, at least in the academic or business sense.
Remember: You are judged by your words, and there is no reason why those words shouldn’t be perfect.
1 Irony. Go look it up.