Yes, you need a human editor. Here’s why.

Created with Sketch.

Yes, you need a human editor. Here’s why.

floppy disk and red pen on edited copy of paper

Some people wonder why they need an editor, or if they even need to proofread when word processing programs now come standard with spell check and the new-ish grammar review “editor” that generates those double blue underlines to go with the red squiggly lines that formerly announced a mortal sin against the spelling gods.

As an actual editor, it’s my job to tell you that we are very important, and even the savviest of robots will not prevail to make us obsolete! However, in case you don’t believe me, I offer you the following account of one semester I spent with an undergraduate whom, for the purpose of this story, we’ll call Deb.

Meet Deb

While I was completing my master’s degree, I was appointed to a graduate assistantship as the mentor for our college’s Resource Center, which provided free research, writing, and presentation help for students enrolled in each department’s undergraduate and graduate programs.

I was not hired as an editor, per se, as we did not revise students’ work for them, but rather guided them through the process of identifying and correcting their own errors–a true learning experience.

Some students would utilize this service only when an instructor required them to get papers reviewed as part of the assignment criteria, but a handful were “frequent flyers” who brought each and every assignment to be checked before they turned it in.

eager student raising hand in class

Deb was one of these students–a vibrant non-traditional student with little confidence in her writing skills, but a strong desire to succeed and, of course, to please her legal studies professor.

Now, it’s worth mentioning that the center had set office hours during which we committed to having staff present, but students were encouraged to make an appointment and submit their essay files in advance, so the scheduled mentor could review the document and prepare for the consultation to make the most of the student’s reserved time slot.

Many students did this.

Not Deb.

Drive-by drafts

green and black face of a clock, blurred into triple vision

Deb would come to my office unannounced, sometimes before I even arrived. She’d be sitting at the table near the end of the hall 15 or 20 minutes before my scheduled start time, often the only eyewitness to me wrangling my laptop case, coffee mug, and eighteen different tote bags like some sort of pre-pubescent octopus creature trying to dig out my keys between the elevator and my office door without invoking an avalanche of my personal effects.

Fortunately, witnessing this feat of human awkwardness did not dissuade her confidence in my academic abilities, as she sought out my guidance for all 16 weeks of the term, eschewing other mentors’ calendars to see me spontaneously at 9 a.m. on a Monday, even when someone else had an opening between her afternoon classes. On these days, the moment she spotted me barreling down the hall, she’d spring up from her chair, clutching her printed draft in her hand and bubbling with almost tangible excitement.

An editor’s dream

For this reason, I loved to work with Deb. I found her enthusiasm for our meetings refreshing, as most students came to the center reluctantly or offered the bare minimum participation to fulfill their obligatory visit to an editor for course credit, not to mention the hordes of students who requested us to “just make the changes” for them (which we would not do, much to their disappointment).

Deb was different; she wanted to improve her skills and was eager to accept feedback offered.

blank manuscript on lined paper with DRAFT stamp for editing

This particular day, she brought a rough draft of an upcoming paper, and I began to read through it as I sipped my first cup of coffee. Deb got settled in the chair on the other side of my meeting table and stared at the green pen in my hand as she raptly awaited my feedback. It wasn’t my favorite thing to be watched by an author as I stoically read their work, but Deb was always patient as I worked my way through her drop-in drafts.

I got about a paragraph into the paper and found a sentence that didn’t quite resonate with me. I read it a second time. And a third.

*blink, blink, headscratch*

I understood all the words individually, and there weren’t any egregious structural issues, but I couldn’t quite grasp the takeaway message. So, I made a mental note to revisit that section, reminding myself again that it was 9 a.m. on a Monday before I’d had a full cup of coffee (i.e., the elixir of brain cells at that point in my life). Perhaps some context from the remaining sentences would provide clarity. I continued to read, when I noticed another confusing phrase.

Frustrated white woman editor with short hair looks at computer screen through gritted teeth

At this point, I thought I was surely missing something. The paper itself wasn’t incoherent, but every couple lines, all meaning was lost on me.

I tried not to react to my confusion.

Get it together, Elle.

A couple sentences further, and the same thing occurred. The clause began smoothly, but about halfway through, I hit a word that just didn’t fit. Now at the end of the first page, I circled the misfit word, which sent up the Bat Signal for Deb, who was still intently watching me read this seemingly sensible paper that occasionally devolved into word salad.

“Uh oh. Did I make a mistake?”

Not knowing quite how to respond to this without sounding like I was completely losing brain cells by the trillion, I showed her the problematic word I’d marked and asked what she intended the sentence to communicate.

I fully expected her to look at me like I had sprouted a stalk of broccoli from my head, but to my surprise, she blurted, “Well, I’m not a very good writer, and I wanted to get a good grade, so I went through and used the thesaurus button to replace some of the words so it sounded better.”

Suddenly, the whole paper made sense.

I wasn’t suffering from some type of temporary aphasia caused by caffeine deficiency—there really were random words that didn’t belong in the sentences surrounding them.

Relieved by this revelation, I circled back to the earlier parts of the paper that had me questioning my sanity. Deb confirmed that the thesaurus button was to blame for those mystery passages, pointing directly to each individual word that tripped me up, admitting she inserted them from automatically generated Microsoft Word suggestions.

pose-able mannequin pressing keys on computer keyboard

That day, we spent the majority of our time together identifying the unusual sentences and talking about what original word she had rejected and replaced as well as why she didn’t think it was suitable or appropriately formal for her paper.

I told her that the thesaurus is a great resource for finding synonyms or jogging our memories when we can’t find the word we want to use, but that it shouldn’t be used to rashly replace words in sentences, because the computer doesn’t always understand the context in which we’re using those words.

She seemed to accept this, and we also discussed how using the longest and most flowery wording is not always the most effective way to convey an idea. Simple sentences are okay as long as they are complete! When we’d reached the end of her draft, Deb left to make her revisions, promising not to use words she didn’t know.

Fast forward a week or two.

Deb dropped by (in the middle of the day this time), happy as ever, thanking me profusely for my help on her last assignment because she learned so much and had gotten the grade she wanted.

We got right to work on her next assignment, and the session was going well. The sentences were straightforward and much easier to follow. Deb was her typical bubbly self as we corrected some minor grammatical errors and adjusted a few rogue punctuation marks together.

Then, I saw it.

Another vocabulary choice that made my brow furrow. Before I could say anything, Deb got quiet and sheepishly hung her head. As she slowly looked up at me like a child caught with their hand in the cookie jar, her confession tumbled out:

“I hit the button, Ms. Elle. I did–I know I’m not supposed to, but I thought you wouldn’t notice!”

drawing of a single finger presses a glowing red button on bright green background

I stifled a small giggle, and her shame turned to laughter as I jokingly gave her a glare of feigned disapproval before helping her choose a more contextually sound word–and realizing people aren’t kidding when they refer to editors as the Grammar Police.

Deb got busted.

The-Saurus has spoken.

Bad dinosaur quips aside, I will always remember the day Deb stopped by during finals week, beaming with pride, to let me know she turned in her final paper of the semester “without hitting the button. Not even once!” I’m not sure where she ended up after passing that course, but I like to imagine she’s out there spreading the message of choosing words wisely and sticking to the ones you know. (Or doing the work to properly learn the new ones!)

The next time you find yourself tempted to “hit the button,” make sure it’s the speed dial for your favorite editor!

If you don’t have one of those yet, now is the perfect time to use this button to request a consultation with the Pocket-Sized Professor. When spell check won’t catch it, Elle-Check will!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *