In Search of the Broken P

The last few days I’ve had the occasion to be involved in various aspects of the editing game. With this on my mind, I was looking at the books above my desk and glanced upon one of the references I keep handy – The Elements of Editing: A Modern Guide for Editors and Journalists by Arthur Plotnik. Since David Salierno had just reminded me (by example) how much I need an editor to ensure proper completion of my humor pieces, I grabbed it and opened a page at random where I stumbled across the description of an editor who compulsively looked for broken p’s in galley proofs. This was followed by the “Signs of Dysfunctional (Editor-Related) Compulsiveness”. Skipping the details under each section, here is the list: 

  • Holding to favorite rules of usage, whatever the effect on communications
  • Musing for fifteen minutes on whether to use a hairline or one-point rule
  • Changing every passive construction to an active one
  • Concentrating on negative rather than positive space in layout
Okay, I know auditors don’t usually worry about negative or positive space, and I’d bet we seldom concern ourselves with hairline vs. one-point rule. But how many of the things we do under the auspices of “making a better report” are really no more than angels dancing on the head of a favorite rule of usage?
Allow me a quick sidetrack. (I believe I heard this from Sally Cutler during a training session on report writing - and if it wasn’t her, I know she will be quick to correct me.) Among the many roles audit executives may define for themselves, audit work is usually low on the list. However, almost every one of them does complete audit work; that is, they are all deeply involved in the writing of audit reports. Actually, they don’t write them, but they do rewrite them. And many audit executives spend a lot of time on this effort. Of course, each will defend these efforts saying that the report is their most important product, and it is important to get it right.
But, this is a warning to everyone. Go back to the signs of dysfunctionality listed above. How much time are you spending reviewing and rewriting reports? How much of that time is spent on making the reports better versus trying to make them perfect? Is perfect really better? Who defined perfect, you? How do you know you’re correct? Are you trying to achieve perfection, or just achieving dysfunctional (reviewer-related) compulsiveness?
Next time you start editing/rewriting a report, ask yourself if you are adding value or just adding words.

Posted on Oct 15, 2010 by Mike Jacka

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