With most tasks, repetition improves skill. Name an action: serving a tennis ball, baking a cake, speaking in front of an audience. In your experience, isn’t it true that the more you do something, the better you get?
Would you find it troubling if the opposite occurred?
Since 2005, I’ve spent many working hours editing articles about wild animals. In “Outliers,” Malcolm Gladwell wrote that the key to outstanding success in any field is practicing a specific task for a total of around 10,000 hours. When it comes to editing stories about wildlife, I am roughly two-thirds of the way there. I should be pretty good by now.
And yet, when it comes to one task, I’m getting worse. It’s a silly little thing, but it’s something I run across weekly if not daily. You’re going to laugh when I confess what it is, because it’s so basic yet so integral to my job: knowing when to deploy plural terms for various types of wildlife.
Take “dove.” An “s” on the end makes it plural, but when are you supposed to do that? “Dove” can be plural or singular, right? When you’re talking about one bird or three, one bird is a dove, that’s clear. Are three always doves? Or are they dove (if the same species) and doves (if different species)? Or is there another nuance I’m missing?
You’re going to remind me about collective nouns. I know: I can look that up. I’m talking about my ear. I used to have an ear for this. What I’m confessing is, I seem to have lost that ear, and now I have to look things up.
I wish I could ask other editors about this. With repeated exposure to different writers’ approaches to one body of knowledge, does everything start to sound right to you (or wrong, as the case may be)? Do you feel more or less skilled, the longer you edit in that field? In many ways, I feel more skilled, but I do wonder this: What’s happening to my ear?
Maybe I’m not losing it. There’s another interpretation of what’s going on. It’s possible I used to get it wrong sometimes without knowing it, and now I know this is a problem area. I’ve gained the wisdom to know when something could be wrong and that I should pay close attention. In other words, maybe with experience I’ve become more sensitive to the nuances of writing in my chosen field.
Comforting thought. I sure hope it’s true.