Fascinating Details of Medieval Manuscripts

Over the last several months, I’ve been working my way through Christopher De Hamel’s book Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts: Twelve Journeys into the Medieval World, and I just finished reading the final chapter today. I’m not a medievalist – I’ve often found books on medieval history that I’ve been exposed to are very focused on warfare, religion, and the history of “Great” men, which are fine topics of study but of less interest to me. (I recognize that there are other focusses of medieval scholarship but as I haven’t made a particular study of this time period I’m less aware of others – please feel free to recommend books / works you think I’d like!) As such, my understanding of the time period was sort of “flattened”, in that I couldn’t really distinguish much between the early and late medieval periods, aside from a general sense of changing fashions and art styles, and a knowledge that there was a lot of wars and politicking.

However, de Hamel’s book really gets at the heart of what I find particularly interesting about any period of history: the lived experience of people, and what the materiality of surviving artifacts can tell us about their lives. This book does describe the contents of the manuscripts under discussion (dating from the late sixth century Gospels of St. Augustine to the Spinola Hours from nearly a thousand years later, 1515-1520), but more than that, the author delves into amazing detail about what we can learn about the medieval world and its people from the materiality of these books. What can we learn about the book from the “hand” that wrote it – and what can we determine about their identity? What about little oxidized pinpricks that indicate a long since removed metal clasp? In what ways were books made in different regions made unique by the materials available and the local education of their makers, and in what ways were these far-flung places actually connected, by culture, education, or traded goods? What details can we glean that tell us a bit about the books history: where it was made, why it was made, and where it’s been for the last 1,000 years before it popped up again unexpectedly in the mid-1800s? The way he describes the minutia, it very much is a form of historic detective work.

I also really enjoyed how the author always described the experience of seeing the book in the archive where it rests today. This is a researcher who has consulted so many manuscripts over his life time things like the feel and weight of the parchment, the smell of the book, and the nuances of the writing, ping things in his brain, where he can draw connections to texts he consulted decades before. As he says on multiple occasions in the book, you don’t really get a sense of some of what he’s describing from a facsimile or a photograph, but he does his best to try. I really felt like I was walking along with him as he visited these archives, sitting beside him at the consultation table and leaning over his shoulder as he pointed out nifty details.

I want to share a few choice passages with you today that really spoke to me and made me want to learn more. I hope that you too pick up a copy of this book and delve into the world of medieval manuscripts!

On the Book of Kells (late eighth century): “Newcomers to manuscripts sometimes ask what such books tell us about the societies that created them. At one level, these Gospel Books describe nothing, for they are not local chronicles but standard Latin translations of religious texts from far away. At the same time, this is itself extraordinarily revealing about Ireland. No one knows how literacy and Christianity had first reached the islands of Ireland, possibly through North Africa. This was clearly no primitive backwater but a civilization which could now read Latin, although never occupied by the Romans, and which was somehow familiar with texts and artistic designs which have unambiguous parallels in the Coptic and Greek churches, such as carpet pages and Canon tables. Although the Book of Kells itself is as uniquely Irish as anything imaginable, it is a Mediterranean text and the pigments used in making it include orpiment, a yellow made from arsenic sulphide, exported from Italy, where it is found in volcanoes. There are clearly lines of trade and communication unknown to us.”(124-5)

On the Morgan Beatus (mid-tenth century): “The Morgan Beatus is written in the script known to paleographers as Visgothic minuscule. To explain it, we need to go back to the origin of Latin writing in ancient Rome. There were two distinct classes of script common in Roman antiquity. The first of these were high-grade display capitals, such as the letters ‘S.P.Q.R.’ on classical monuments, easily legible to us, and rustic capitals in books, as imitated in the Leiden Aratea. At the other end of the scale were rapid cursive hands – ‘joined-up writing’ as children call it – used on papyrus for administrative documents. At the simplest level – it was a bit more complex in reality – Roman capitals evolved over the centuries into unicals, and eventually (through subtle and gradual mutations, as in genetics) descended into modern European letter forms, including those used in this book. The cursive, however, was exported outwards with imperial bureaucracy into the Roman provinces, where it bred independently into the many local variants of handwriting, such as the strange-looking spidery Merovingian minuscules in France, Alemannic miniscule in western Germany, and so on. These were then swept away by Charlemagne in the early ninth century in a deliberate programme of standardization of script throughout his vast dominions, substituting the famous ‘Caroligian’ or ‘Caroline’ minuscule. Only on the outer fringes of Europe, beyond the reach of Carolingian authority, the tenacious descendants of Roman cursive managed to live on, like prehistoric animals still surviving in some fictional valley isolated from the outside world. The best-known of these living fossils are Beneventan minuscule in southern Italy and up to the extreme fringes of the eastern coast as far as Croatia, and Visgothic minuscule in much of Spain and Portugal. The fact that such scripts endured, against the trend, even into the eleventh and twelfth centuries, tells us a great deal about the cultural frontiers of contemporary politics.

A detail from the Morgan Beatus, showing Visigothic miniscule. 095, MS M.644, fol. 40r.

“Visgothic minuscule, which has nothing to do with the illiterate tribal Visgoths other than a shared association with pre-Muslim Iberia, is beautiful and calligraphic and exasperatingly difficult to read. It is filled with flowing ligatures inherited from Roman cursive, such as the joined ‘e’ and ‘r’ resembling a single letter. The lower case ‘a’ is open-topped like ‘u’, and ‘s’ looks like ‘r’, and ‘t’ rather like a modern ‘a’. Reading Visgothic reminds me of being a child on the first days of the summer holidays. One would scamper painfully in bare feet across the road and over pebbles on the beach, feigning ease and non-chalance; by the very end of the holiday, it was truthfully no hardship at all. Early next summer it was agony all over again. Stare at an impenetrable page of Visgothic minuscule in despair, struggle letter by letter, and by late afternoon, usually just as the library is about to close, it becomes at last surprisingly legible; next morning it is quite unreadable once more. This might explain partly why Beatus had such limited circulation outside early-medieval Spain.”(209-10)

On the Morgan Beatus (mid-tenth century): “The second volume opens on folio 150 with the storia from revelation 11:17-10. The first picture shows the Antichrist – his face vindictively scratched by an outraged reader (long ago, I hope) – chopping the witnesses into nasty blooded pieces…”(218)

Detail of the antichrist with his face scratched out by a reader, from the Morgan Beatus.

On the Morgan Beatus (mid-tenth century): On the art of this manuscript, which has been described by other scholars as unsophisticated, especially compared to pieces like the Book of Kells: The “downright strangeness of the pictures may have had a practical purpose. The monastic method of studying the Scriptures was to read a sentence or two aloud, and then to think about the text word by word, looking slowly for multiple layers of meaning. It was called ‘lectio divina‘. That meditative rumination was itself an act of devotion. If the monk could gaze at the page and memorize it, then this slow pious reflexion could continue in his mind long after the original manuscript had been closed up and put away in its box in the cloisters. Passages of plain script, maybe especially in Visigothic minuscule with little word-division, are difficult to envisage afterwards, but pages with complex illustrations as dramatic and as unsettling as those here are impossible to erase from memory. Their naivety is a benefit. The brilliance of the colour and the startling narrative drama have real value. They served as a mnemonic device to enable reflexion on Revelation to continue among many readers at once, at any time of day or night.”(224)

On the Carmina Burana (first half of the thirteenth century): “Since Latin was the language of international literacy, versus composed in France were just as understandable in London, Cologne, Rome or Salzburg, at least by educated men. When the poems had lost their context so far that they had been reduced to dance songs in which women participated, however, extra verses were sometimes added in the German language. Many of the earliest records of vernacular languages of Europe are associated with women, who were at that time genenerally less Latinate than men. About forty of the love poems of the Carmina Burana have refrains in German, in the same metre as the Latin. These were probably supplied when the songs were used as rounds, with the different languages to be sung simultaneously by male and female voices. About a dozen other poems in the manuscript are partly or entirely in German. This is extremely early in the survival of any vernacular literature. Some German verses in the Carmina Burana are addressed to women, doubtless in the guise of admirers supposing that their suits might be more successful if the lady understood what was being asked of her. Examples are “Süziu vrouw min …”, ‘My sweet woman …’, imploring her to enjoy the darts of Venus, and “Selich wip, vil süziz wip …”, ‘Lovely lady, most sweet lady …’, describing how the writer has sent her a love letter. Others are set in the voices of women themselves, addressed to men. There is a charming poem on folio 72r in which a woman is whispering to her lover who has secretly stayed all night, “Ich sich den morgen sterne brehen …” (‘I see the morning star breaking …’), urging him to slip away without being seen. . . . In one famous five-line verse in German in the Carmina Burana the protagonist gladly offers to sacrifice the wealth of the entire world to lie in bliss in the arms of the queen of England. In fact, in the manuscript itself, the scribe originally wrote ‘king of England’ – “chunich van engellant” – which was crossed out and later altered to ‘the queen’ (“diu chunegin”). It seems to be in reality to make better sense as the wish of a woman, speaking German. The formidable Eleanor of Aquitaine (c. 1122-1204), queen of England 1154-89, was an unlikely object of male fantasy, but her son, the dashing Richard the Lionheart, was unmarried and nearby, a prisoner in Austria in 1192-4. This would furnish a plausible date and general locality for the composition of the German text.
“It is generally accepted that the manuscript of the Carmina Burana was not compiled at Benediktbeuern itself, but probably somewhere further south in what is now Austria, then part of greater Bavaria. The script has pronounced Italianate features, as often in Austrian books, and the smooth pages have a southern feel to the touch, unlike the more suede-like texture of German parchment. (This is a judgement impossible to make from a photograph, or while wearing gloves.)” (367-8)

On the Hours of Jeanne de Navarre (second quarter of the fourteenth century): “The original owner, however, was not a friar or nun, and her identity is not in doubt. About twenty margins include little vignettes of a queen kneeling in prayer, wearing a gold crown and a cloak lined with ermine, sometimes with a manuscript open in front of her. Elsewhere she kneels in the illuminated initials. Sometimes she appears within miniatures themselves, witnessing first-hand the Scourging of Christ and venerating the Virgin and Child in their actual presence. Many of the prayers in the text are adapted for exclusive use by a woman, as we can tell from words that have gender-specific endings in Latin. Examples are “… ut michi indigne peccatrici ancille tue” (‘to me your unworthy sinful servant,’ all feminine forms), “… concede michi famule tue” (‘grant me your servant’, where a male petitioner would have been “famulo tuo”), and the prayer upon receiving Communion, “Domine non sum digna …” (‘Lord, I am not worthy …’, the female form of the adjective). By extreme good fortune, the woman is actually named. This is in a prayer to the Virgin Mary which happens to include a plea to ‘intercede for me, your servant, Johanna, queen of Navarre’, or, in the original, “ut intercedas pro me ancilla tua Johanna navarre regina”. These precious words are on folio 151v, easy to overlook in the middle of a page of text.”(391)

On visiting the Visconti Semideus (c. 1438) in St. Petersburg, which is all about tactics of medieval warfare: “The first hurdle is the immensely complex application for a Russia visa, for which one has to list, among many other things, every school and university attended and every job one has ever had, with dates and contact names and telephone numbers, and every country one has visited in the previous ten years, with dates. Any involvement with politics or armed conflict, at any period of one’s life, has to be declared. There are clearly issues that are sensitive. For the stated purpose of my purported visit to Russia, I toyed for a moment with writing ‘gaining access to government department to inspect manual on armaments and military strategy’ but instead I put ‘tourism.'”(472-3)

On the Visconti Semideus (c. 1438): “The text describes how to advance on the city, with God’s help, bearing shields and catapults and bringing constructions to be moved up against the walls, and what I take to mean bombards or cannons (literally ‘roaring bronze’), with flamethrowers, slinging machines, and other instruments of war. Many terms for siege machinery are listed – “tormentis, fundibulis, scorpiis” and others: my little Latin dictionary simply defines each one as ‘catapult’ but there are evidently subtle differences known to military specialists.”(491)


De Hamel, Christopher. Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts: Twelve Journeys into the Medieval World. New York, NY: Penguin Press, 2016.

Many libraries and archives seem to have made available many of the manuscripts written about by De Hamel in his book. If any of the works described here or in his book intrigue you, go snooping on their website. Be prepared to go down a rabbit hole of zooming in on high resolution scans of these books!

Cover image from the Hugo Pictor manuscript from the Bodleian, including a detail of the earliest known labelled self portrait.

Author Erin Kinsella Interviews Me About My Bison Book

I have talented friends! The ever-gracious and enthusiastic Erin Kinsella interviews me in this video on her YouTube channel about my book, Through the Storm: Canada’s Bison Conservation Story. Learn some nifty anecdotes from my research and the publication process with the federal government, why my book has two different titles (or four, if you consider the French versions), and some photoshop secrets about the cover!

Researching the Minutia of Edwardian Daily Life for “The Beauty Doctor”


In the spring of 1907, Abigail Platford finds herself unexpectedly adrift in New York City. Penniless and full of self-doubt, she has abandoned her dream of someday attending medical school and becoming a doctor like her late father. Instead, she takes a minor position in the office of Dr. Franklin Rome, hoping at least to maintain contact with the world of medicine that fascinates her. She soon learns that the handsome and sophisticated Dr. Rome is one of a rare new breed of so-called beauty doctors who chisel noses, pin back ears, trim eyelids and inject wrinkles with paraffin. At first skeptical, she begins to open her mind, and then her heart, to Dr. Rome. But when his partnership with an eccentric collector of human oddities raises troubling questions, Abigail becomes ensnared in a web of treachery that challenges her most cherished beliefs about a doctor’s sacred duty and threatens to destroy all she loves.

Last fall, I was approached by historical fiction author Elizabeth Hutchison Bernard to review the manuscript of her historical suspense novel, The Beauty Doctor. She had already done a tremendous amount of research but needed someone to help her fill in a few gaps as well as to ensure that she had accurately captured some of the nuances of the Edwardian era. In particular, she was concerned about subtle differences between the Victorian period, about which there has been so much written, and the Edwardian period, which was relatively short but did represent a huge shift in certain aspects of American life and culture. I soon fell into a rabbit hole of research, exploring the fascinating world of early plastic surgery and gender politics in 1907.

Conducting research for a novel, as opposed to many academic articles, had me seek out interesting details of daily life that aren’t often recorded. (Do you make note of which streets in your town are paved or unpaved? What about if there are electric street lights on the corner of your street? Did you change your clothes before you went out for a walk this afternoon, or not?) Luckily for me, the action of the novel largely takes places in New York City, one of the most documented cities in the world! Still, some details remained elusive. The Edwardian era was a time of flux when it came to technology as well as social values: an excellent backdrop for a historical drama!

A lot of research starts with a concrete question, and the author had noted in her manuscript quite a few specific ones about what she wanted me to either weigh in on or help answer with further research. Here are some of the useful resources and fascinating details I uncovered while researching The Beauty Doctor

  1. How do you start a car at this time? 1907 was very early in the history of automobiles, and they were largely considered playthings for the rich – and they were dangerous. One of my favourite sources for perceptions of cars in the early days was this podcast episode from 99% Invisible. But how do you operate a car from this time period? It was far from standardized like it is today. My best source was to simply go on youtube and watch people start vintage cars like this one. A picture – or video – is worth a thousand words!
  2. What kinds of clothing would a character wear on particular kinds of occasions? What a character wears says a lot about them as a person, and it will change depending on the situation they find themselves in. Reading historical etiquette manuals helped me get into the mindset of what was appropriate and inappropriate to wear – and remember, not all characters act according to society’s wishes. This was something that the author and I discussed frequently, as she had very definite ideas about what some of her characters should and should not do or wear. I found that her instincts about such things were quite good. For example, her character Alexandra Gagarin, the Russian countess, often wore a kimono; the Asian influence actually was quite in vogue at the time. I found collections of  historical fashion plates invaluable, particularly for characters from higher classes. Mail order catalogues are also very handy to see what an everyday person could buy, ready-made, and that’s not just limited to clothing! Of course, photographs of women and what they really wore, as opposed to illustrated fashion plates, are also incredibly useful, and fascinating to boot.
  3. Would they have said it like that? How do you check and see if a word was in use over 100 years ago? The author had actually been very careful about her selection of words and researched the origins of most all of them that were questionable. However, a second pair of eyes is always a good idea! I’d often reach for two different resources to confirm or deny my gut feeling of a word or phrase sounding too modern. Google Ngram is a nifty tool that allows you to search Google Books for the prevalence of words or phrases over time, and displays them in chart form. Here, for example, is a graph depicting the published use of the phrase “makes them tick” in published material. (It seemed to come into popular use after the Second World War.) This online etymology dictionary was incredibly handy to see when a word first joined the English language and how it has evolved over the centuries. I learned, for example, that the word “concussion” has a long history: “c. 1400, from Latin concussionem (nominative concussio) “a shaking,” noun of action from past participle stem of concutere “shake violently,” from com “with, together” (see com-) + quatere “to shake” (see quash). Modern brain injury sense is from 1540s.” A lot of words that I checked because they felt too modern to me turned out to have older origins than I anticipated! The word “boss” dates from the 1640s. The word “handy” dates back to the 1300s! And sometimes it’s just the way a word sounds, rather than its date of origin.  For example, the author liked my suggestion to use the word “position” instead of “job.” Either would have been perfectly correct, but the former has a more old-fashioned “ring” to it.
As for the medical aspects of the book, especially plastic surgery, the author was quite an expert in that herself. She did, however, ask for my help in finding some photos of operating rooms from the first decade of the 20th century, including how the doctors and nurses dressed.  Of course, most of the medical scenes in The Beauty Doctor don’t take place in a hospital but instead in a private doctor’s office set up as an operating room. There was definitely some improvisation required!
     I really enjoyed the story of The Beauty Doctor and think you will, too.  The book is available now through these fine retailers!


“The End of One-Pound-One,” or, the Long Suffering Gladstone Hates His Boss

Have you ever had a boss that you absolutely despised? W. Gladstone certainly did. Not to be confused with the nineteenth century British Prime Minister of the same name, Gladstone was a labourer for the Hudson’s Bay Company in his youth during the 1840s and 1850s and decades later wrote a really evocative biographical account of his life during the fur trade era. Here is the amazingly vicious description Gladstone wrote of the death of John Rowand: Chief Factor of the Saskatchewan District and his ultimate boss in Rupert’s Land. One of Rowand’s nicknames was “One Pound One” after his shuffling footstep from a limp he’d acquired after a hunting accident in his youth. He was known for his “tyrannical” attitude and impatience towards the labourers under his command. Historian John MacGregor wrote of an incident described by Father Albert Lacombe, a Catholic Missionary, at Fort Edmonton:

“[Lacombe] sympathized with the overworked boatmen. Never had he seen such travail and his warm heart went out to the voyageurs to the extent that on behalf of one of them who was ill but carrying on, he tried to induce John Rowand to give the man a rest. Rowand was flabbergasted and scolded the priest for being impertinent enough to approach him in such a case. In Rowand’s defense, it may be said that if he had permitted himself to relax the man’s labors, he would soon have been overwhelmed by all his trackers trying to take advantage of a man they considered a weak boss.

‘But the man is ill,’ pleaded the priest, ‘and has been ill for a week.’

‘Bah!’ said the rugged Rowand. ‘He’s all right. Any man who’s not dead after three days’ sickness is not sick at all.'”

(J.G. MacGregor, John Rowand, Czar of the Prairies (Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1978), 161-2.)

“A first-class devil”? (According to Gladstone.) The only known photograph of Chief Factor John Rowand, circa 1847. Note the jowls. Image courtesy of the Glenbow Museum and Archive.

The year was 1854…

“Chapter XIV


Having ended my first five years with the Hudson’s Bay Company, I commenced my second term as a journeyman boat builder and soon after I signed a contract for two more years, the boats left for York. About three weeks after their departure, a son of One-Pound-One came from Fort Pitt to take charge for the summer at Edmonton. He told us all the particulars of his father’s death.

It seems that when the men arrived at Fort Pitt they got into a general fight and raised a row that reached the old man’s ears. He hastened to the scene of the fight, fuming with rage and frothing at the mouth. He got himself worked up to a great pitch, trying to stop the fight and swore like a madman.

Suddenly he dropped in his tracks and when lifted up was found to be stone dead. When the men who were on the river bank heard the news there was a great rejoicing and all around the country.

His son threatened to kill the man who was the innocent cause of his father’s death, but this man escaped to the woods and with a French half-breed and his wife as guides, fled from pursuit. One night they camped at Vermillion River. The fugitive, whose name was Paul, took his axe to cut timber for a raft and the half-breed with his gun, left the camp to hunt game for supper.

While Paul was engaged in felling a tree he was shot dead by the frenchman who claimed that seeing him dimly through the underbrush, he mistook him for a wild animal and fired. We all believed that the truth of the matter was that Paul had been murdered by the half-breed and that One-Pound-One’s son had bribed him to follow Paul and killed him. The poor fellow was buried where he fell and nothing further was said about the matter.

The chief factor was the only judge and jury then and could do pretty much as he liked even to the extent of making away secretly with an enemy. There was no one besides him to represent the law and no one to insist on justice. One-Pound-One was buried at Fort Pitt. Next spring his body was taken up and an old Cree boiled all the flesh off his bones which were sent to St. Boniface for burial.

The women say that long before the water boiled in the cauldron they heard groans and hisses issuing from it. It did not take much to make the old man hot when he was alive and perhaps even his inflammable carcass resented being boiled in a pot like beef. Women are always a trifle superstitious and I didn’t put much faith in that story.

Perhaps it grew some since, for there was also a yarn about them making a by-product of soap from his remains, so that on wash days, the old man, in the form of soap, became a blessing to the fort. But I don’t believe that story either, for he was too far from godliness when alive, to become an agent of cleanliness after death.

So, good-bye to old One-Pound-One, and I hope he is not in that hot place to which he was always sending us, but if he is Satan must have given him a place among his advisors, for he certainly had all the qualifications to make a first-class devil. His son was a chip off the old block and when we got rid of him too, a year later, there was not one of us who did not bear his grief like a man and if we needed our handkerchiefs, it was to hide our smiles.”

(W. Gladstone, The Gladstone Diary: Travels in the Early West(Lethbridge, Alberta: Historic Trails Society of Alberta, 1985), 40-1.)

[Unprofessional aside: OH SNAP.]

Gladstone’s account is one of the few written sources we have written from the point of view of the labouring class during the fur trade, and as such he represents a unique perspective of what life was like on the ground – and working under intimidating figures like John Rowand. You can really feel the hatred for his boss oozing off of the page, written decades after the events he describes. Rowand is described in animalistic terms – “frothing” at the mouth, for instance. I love the “first-class devil” description. Even when Gladstone was casting doubt on the nasty rumour that Rowand’s considerable fat was used for soap, he made it into an insult; in essence, “there’s no way that could have happened, because cleanliness is next to godliness and there was nothing godly about John Rowand.” Of course, as he was not present, much of what he evocatively describes of the incident is malicious rumour, but we do know that Rowand’s body was disinterred from its burial spot at Fort Pitt, rendered to the bones, and sent to Montreal in a barrel. Rowand was buried in Mount Royal Cemetery over four years after his initial death.

The story of the death of John Rowand (or “The Tale of the Pickled Factor,” as one of my friends and former colleagues describes it) remains a popular narrative at Fort Edmonton Park. I am currently finishing a term paper on interpretive techniques and myth making at historic sites using this story as a case study. Keep an eye out for video and audio recordings of a fuller version of this tale on this blog in the future.

Further Reading and Related Posts

Avoiding the $17,500 Typo: Tips to Prevent Losing Easy Marks on Written Assignments

I’m going to stop talking about public history and my own historical research for a moment to issue a public service announcement that I hope will be of some use to students, including the ones whose papers I am to grade this semester.

Even in elementary school (at least as far as my own experience), students are indoctrinated with the importance of proofreading. “Read over your own work and check for mistakes,” we are told over and over, and yet so many of us admit with very little prompting that we don’t do as much proofreading as we should.

Well, here I am, reminding you once again of the importance of proofreading. It cannot be underestimated. You never grow out of needing to proofread. Nobody graduates high school, finishes their Undergraduate degree or even their Master’s or PhD program with a perfect understanding of English and an ability to transcribe everything perfectly into the written word the first time. We are all human, and thus we make mistakes: particularly the dreaded embarrassing typo.

In the first year of my Master’s program, we attended a few information sessions about grant applications. One woman in particular who came in to speak to us about the SSHRC grant – valued at $17,500 at the MA level that year – said something that has continued to stick in my mind. I asked her at the end of her talk about what can get my application tossed out immediately. (They get so many applications, you see, that SSHRC evaluators apparently look for any excuse to put applications to the bottom of the pile.)

Her immediate answer? Typos, particularly typos in the first paragraph.

I reiterate this last point: a typo can cost you up to $17,500. Proofreading matters.

Typos, I have been informed by friends and relatives who are involved in the hiring process at various jobs, are also one of the most common reasons why they don’t call some people back. If there is a typo in an applicant’s résumé/curriculum vitae or cover letter, it signals to the employer that that person does not care enough about this position to take the time to properly prepare and review their application. Get in the habit early of proofreading all of the writing you submit to anybody.

I know that we are all busy university students, but seriously, it is really worth your while to check over your writing, even if it is “only” your professor reading it. If you don’t have enough time to spend half an hour rereading your work, you did not manage your time well. Put off sleep for one more half hour, or reread your work in the morning before printing it off. I promise you one more read-through is worth it. As a TA, seeing a typo signals to me sloppiness and carelessness on the part of the author of the work and puts me on guard for other errors. Like many TA markers, I am detail oriented, and I focus in on the small mistakes in the papers I grade. Poor writing style is often intertwined with poor argumentation in the minds of many who mark assignments; one doesn’t necessarily follow the other, but too often a preponderance of typos or spelling and grammatical errors also indicates a lack of strong rhetorical skills. Leave a favourable impression, and don’t distract your reader from your arguments with small errors in how you articulate them.

There are several other easy ways to avoid losing easy marks on written assignments, particularly at the high school and university level. Some of these will likely prompt sarcastic “Yes, of course, Captain Obvious!” remarks, but those who do may be surprised by the number of students who in essence throw away easy marks.

I know, I know, all you want to do is get this assignment over and done with so you can go back to doing whatever it is that the hip and cool kids are doing nowadays: perfecting your parkour skills, inventing time machines, learning how to knit. You know, the usual. Image courtesy of Library and Archive Canada's Flickr page.
I know, I know, all you want to do is get this assignment over and done with so you can go back to doing whatever it is that the hip and cool kids are doing nowadays: perfecting your parkour skills, inventing time machines, learning how to knit. You know, the usual. However, I assume you’re in university for a reason and want to do well. That means doing the work. Image courtesy of Library and Archive Canada’s Flickr page.

First, read the assignment sheet. Even if you personally feel that the instructions are deadly boring or are for an assignment for which you can’t see any purpose, follow the instructions. In your future career, you will at some point be assigned to write something you don’t want to write. It’s a useful skill, to be able to follow instructions to the letter. You may only be writing for an audience of one or two, in this case, but your work should reflect the creative and intelligent person you know you are.

Read your assignment sheet when you first get it. Ask clarifying questions of the professor or teaching assistant (TA), if necessary. The instructors are generally available and happy to answer questions about the assignment in person, after or during class, during office hours, or through e-mail. Ask well in advance of the due date if you can; if you ask the night before, professors and TAs may not be able to answer your question in time to be useful, and it also indicates to us that the student who asked the question likely didn’t start the assignment until the night before, which is never a good sign.

Read your assignment sheet when you choose your topic. Make sure it falls within the parameters. Read your assignment sheet again when you do your research, when you start writing, and when you have finished and are in the final editing stages. Read it on multiple occasions. Follow the instructions. If the professor gives you a page count or a word count minimum or maximum, stick to it. Don’t try to alter font sizes or margins; professors and TAs can often tell, as they have in all likelihood already been staring at papers like yours for the past few hours or days.

Pay attention to dictated citation style systems. Even if you have a personal vendetta against Chicago Manual of Style (which I personally adore, but maybe its creators killed your father; I know nothing of any grammar blood feuds), if the professor says you should use it, use it. You are writing for an audience of one or two: those who wrote the assignment sheet. Use the style they want.

Every citation style is created with a purpose and provides different information. APA, as far as I understand, was designed to cite studies. This is why it is often used in the sciences, where you can’t really cite one conclusion or even one sentence out of context; you really need to go back and read the entire study. In this case, it makes sense to just cite the author(s) and year. However, APA really doesn’t work for citing primary historical sources. Great, you just cited the entire written work of one historical figure in a certain year. What do you want the reader to get out of it? Where can I find the information you’re talking about in that 700 page tome? Chicago style – footnoting – is ideal for citing small passages in large works and so is often favoured by the historical profession. If your professor wants you to use it, use it. They may dock marks otherwise.

Some professors, by contrast, don’t care what citation style you use, as long as you are consistent and the reader can retrace your steps. The whole point of citations is so a reader can theoretically read all that you cite and see where you came to your conclusions. If your citation doesn’t do that, you have a problem.

Pay attention to word counts or paper length. Some professors don’t mind if you go over or under the proposed minimum or maximum by a small amount. Others are exacting to the very page or word and will ruthlessly dock marks. Find out which your professor is. You can also theoretically ask the professor themselves how much leeway they give for page or word counts. They may even answer your question instead of remaining women or men of mystery!

Remember, you are writing for a limited audience – the professor, and perhaps your TA – but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t an important one. They are judging your writing for its worth. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. Do your best, and follow the instructions.

The following are a few examples of papers that I have received from students who clearly didn’t read the instruction sheet. Often, they are otherwise incredibly intelligent and capable people, but lost marks for reasons that could have been easily avoided:

  • A well-written document analysis of a letter from Isabella of Spain to Christopher Columbus in the 1490s regarding the discovery of India. (This was, in reality, as we all know: various Caribbean islands.) This work was submitted for an assignment for an American history survey course that specified that the first assignment should analyze a document from between the 1640s – 1760s on the territory that would become the Continental United States. It was outside of the geographical and temporal range specified in the assignment; since it was well-written, we gave the student the option of writing a new paper in two weeks. This mistake and the extra work involved could have been avoided by consulting the assignment sheet at any stage in the research and writing process.
  • A different student turned in a one-page paper for that same document analysis assignment, when the paper was supposed to be at least a thousand words long. It made a fine introductory paragraph, but fell far too short of the specified length. This could have been avoided by consulting the assignment sheet.
  • Several students turned in document analyses of textual sources that were not from the online archive specified by the instruction sheet. One purpose of the assignment was so that students could learn to use the Library of Congress’ online archive; if the student found the document by Googling, it defeated the purpose of the assignment, and marks were docked. This could have been avoided by consulting the assignment sheet.

Furthermore, please remember that spellchecks are not infallible. Just because your Word document has not underlined any words with red squiggles does not mean that you do not have any typos. Auto-correct can change your small mistake to a word that you didn’t intend for it to be, and you may not even notice as you furiously type up your brilliant arguments at amazing speeds. If you have the time, read through your assignment out loud; it will prevent your eyes from skipping ahead and over words.

Finally, I also recommend that you get a friend or loved one to read through your assignment; they often catch mistakes that the spellcheck doesn’t. Preferably, make it someone who is unfamiliar with your topic. If you choose someone who works in other fields, they will be more likely to review or ask for clarification for your writing style  or will be searching for typos, not accidentally giving you new ideas for your main argument… which can stray dangerously close to plagiarism.

In general, students will only get as much out of the assignment as they put in. The purpose of written assignments is not to torture students, but to educate them. These essays are generally assigned to improve your research skills, your ability to think critically about texts, and articulate arguments. You may be a brilliant researcher but if you cannot communicate your ideas, you have not achieved your desired goal and your work suffers for it. Professors and teaching assistants can only evaluate what they have in front of them, not what you know and understand in your head. Think of these written assignments as practice. They are not meant to be perfect – some instructors refuse to ever give students perfect marks, believing it impossible – but in theory they help to improve your research skills, critical thinking, and writing style, which are all abilities that should serve you well both in school and outside of academia, including in the job market.

So please: proofread your work and review your assignment sheets. Your writing should reflect your arguments and leave a good impression with the reader. Typos are like potholes on a highway; they can be annoying, do not promote favourable impressions, and can potentially cause life threatening accidents… Wait, I mean that they can derail your argument entirely and prevent the car (your instructor, in this metaphor) from going on their merry way to giving you an excellent grade.

Further Reading

Final post-script: If you spot any typos in this article, please point them out to me so I can correct them. I won’t be offended. I have read and re-read this post multiple times, but as I have stressed already: nobody is perfect, however much we would like to be. (Side note: as a Canadian blogger, all extra “u”s in the middle of words like “favour”, “honour”, and “colour” are meant to be there, no matter what the American spellcheck says.)