What I know now about weight loss and weight management

Last summer, after having been fat for my entire adult life, I went on a radical weight-loss programme and reduced my body mass by 30 kg (66 lb, or about 4.5 stone). I reached a new equilibrium at that point, and have since maintained a constant weight. I’ve now been about 53 kg (117 lb, or a little under 8.5 stone—BMI just over 20) for more than six months, with very minor fluctuations. (Yes, I know I’m now below the middle of the recommended BMI range, and I was surprised at this result initially, but now that I’ve got used to it I think it’s right for me because I have a fairly light bone structure—thin wrists and ankles, for example.)

After an initial period of anxiety and disorientation I’ve gradually become adjusted to the new reality, and am now able to enjoy eating and drinking—alone and in company—without (so far) putting on weight. So now I think I am qualified to write something about the process and what worked for me. I hope other people with the same problem might find something useful here. Bear in mind that it’s only been six months, though. I don’t yet have any proof that the system works in the long term.

The programme that I used is Lighter Life, and not surprisingly I am very enthusiastic about it. These are the reasons I think it worked so well for me:

  • During the weight-loss phase you don’t eat normal food at all. There’s no wiggle-room, no ‘just a little bit won’t hurt’. This appeals to my nature. I like to start a project and just do it until it’s done. Gradual methods don’t attract me.
  • It’s medically supervised (they insist on this) and my GP was supportive—to my great surprise—when I consulted him before I started. This made me feel safe and relaxed about the process. Yes, there are health risks with rapid weight loss, but (as a doctor acquaintance of mine pointed out) you have to balance these against the considerable health risks you take by staying obese.
  • There’s a psychotherapeutic element to it. You have weekly group sessions and the approach is based on cognitive behavioural therapy, which makes a lot of sense to me.
  • You can’t fail to lose weight if you follow the programme, and this fact has a beneficial effect on your mind. I had talked myself into a mindset in which I basically believed that it was impossible for me to lose weight, so there was no point in even trying. Now I had the experience of standing on the scales each week and seeing proof that this belief wasn’t true, and the CBT sessions allowed me to extrapolate from that realisation. As a result of this I understand a bit more about false beliefs in general, how the mind clings onto them, and how to dispel them. This basic insight has been very helpful to me during the weight-maintenance phase (see below) as it’s enabled me to re-examine quite a lot of other false beliefs that I had about food and eating habits—and in particular, the one that says that even if you do manage to lose weight, you’re bound to put it all back on again because ‘everybody always does’.

OK, so that was the weight-loss phase, and my advice to anyone else who wants to lose weight as I did basically comes down to: ‘go to the Lighter Life people, trust them, and do what they tell you’. All well and good, but then what happens next? There is absolutely no point (in my opinion) in losing weight if you’re not going to stay light afterwards.

Well, first, I’d recommend anyone who’s done Lighter Life to use the follow-up programmes that they provide. Don’t just strike off on your own as soon as you reach your target weight. Their gradual process of food reintroduction—it’s like being a baby being weaned all over again, but better this time!—is tremendously useful, and the ongoing support from the counsellor and group is really great.

Next, you really have to learn about food and how to choose what to eat. You think you know, but actually you don’t. It’s an active area of research and you need to inform yourself about what the science now says, as well as learning what works for you psychologically.

Here’s what I’ve learned:

  • Carbohydrates give you a sensation of fullness, but fats don’t—they just slip down. This is one reason why you have to treat fats with such caution. You need some, but you need to learn that a little goes a long way. Weighing portions helps a lot with learning how much to have.
  • Fibre is essential for digestive health but you don’t have to load yourself down with tons of calories to get it. You can take soluble fibre supplements. I use Fibresure, which is basically inulin, twice a day. I also have porridge for breakfast with a few dried apricots, and I have a vast quantity of green vegetables at lunch and dinner. I have a little wholemeal bread as well. That adds up to enough fibre to keep my digestion working well.
  • Women need less food than men do, generally, because women have a smaller frame (especially true for me, because my husband is a lot bigger than I am). Older people need less food than younger ones do. Standard portions have to be enough for those who need more food than you do, so you have to get used to leaving food on your plate when you are eating out—especially if you eat out a lot, as we do. Abandon notions of ‘getting your fair share’. I now routinely divide my portion of rice in half at the start of a meal. Half a standard portion of rice is plenty for a woman of nearly 50.
  • Counting calories really works for weight maintenance. People have told me not to do it—‘it’s soul-destroying’. Well, it depends what kind of soul you have. For me, it’s fascinating and exciting because it means I now understand the process of eating and using food. It gives me precise control and it gives me the freedom to make an informed choice—50 g of this is the same as 25 g of that, so which will I have today? And, most importantly, as I am already at the right weight, I am not trying to minimise calorie consumption. If I haven’t had enough, I must eat some more. It’s bed-time and I need to consume another 100 calories to reach today’s ideal total. I’ll have a cup of cocoa. There is absolutely no reason why I shouldn’t. Depriving myself of the food that I need will not do me any good. (This is why I think that counting calories for weight loss would be a bad idea, though I can’t speak from personal experience about that—it seems to me that you’d always be trying to minimise consumption, and never be satisfied that you’d had the right amount.) Calorie counting is also beneficial because it’s an incentive to take health-giving exercise: a 30-minute brisk walk, or 20 minutes on the rowing machine, means that I can add more than 5% to my basic calorie allowance for the day. A second chocolate after dinner, maybe? A piece of cheese? A glass of wine?
  • However, exercising in an attempt to burn fat is not an efficient way to lose weight. Exercise is good for you—one of the many benefits of being lighter is that exercise is now easier and more fun, so I do (somewhat) more of it now—but exercising while fat in order to reduce is not useful. You have to do such a lot of exercise for such a small loss of weight. And it increases your appetite. You get fitter, which is good, but you don’t get thinner.
  • The body doesn’t like to mess about with its fat reserves, either burning them up or laying them down. It will try to maintain an equilibrium instead (reducing or increasing energy used in order to compensate for reductions or increases in input). This is why temporary starvation or feasting has no effect on fat, and it also explains the discouraging plateaux and sudden exciting shifts that most people experience when losing weight (you get these on Lighter Life too, though of course they are quicker than those you get on a conventional diet). Changes in eating habits, either up or down, have to persist for quite a while before they persuade the body to push past a particular equilibrium state and into the next one.
  • Good things can be saved for later. This takes away the pressure to have them right now just to avoid their being wasted. I was cautioned against this in case it led to snacking, but for me it doesn’t: it just works beautifully. I save tiny portions of leftovers in the fridge and the freezer, in little boxes neatly labelled. I bring them out again next time I’m choosing a meal for myself (my husband and I eat dinner together, but normally, although we often sit at the table together at lunch-time, we each choose our lunch food independently—so there are plenty of opportunities for this), and I savour them instead of opening something new. Often the new thing would have been higher in calories than the leftover portion anyway, so I win both ways.
  • Most of the pleasure of most foods comes in the first couple of mouthfuls, so why have a huge plate-full? Pleasure in eating is maximised by having lots of different, but small, taste sensations (this is one of the messages of the most excellent French Women Don’t Get Fat). Normally these days I have two to four micro-courses at each meal. And quite often I end a meal with a chocolate. Just the one. Exquisite!
  • Choosing and wearing nice clothes can be just as much fun as eating is, once you get used to it. I’ve rediscovered the joy I used to take in getting dressed.

There’s more to say, of course, but that’ll do for now.

Dutch girls

Something that strikes me as odd in Amsterdam is the existence, side by side, of two radically different ways of being (or looking) female. Two styles. The Red Light District style—the naked body, make-up, red fabric, black leather etc—and the scrubbed face, denim, bike-riding, no-nonsense types. We speculate that there is even a cross-over between the two. Are there young women who arrive by bike wearing their jeans, undress, put on the make-up and stand in the window? This whole juxtaposition seems to us Dutch and not English. We are similar but not, after all, the same. [See also ‘Dutch Girl’ by Lisa Yuskavage, recently acquired by the Stedelijk Museum. Nice modern take on Vermeer!]

Another clue to the difference in cultures might be the lack of attention to safety precautions on the city’s many building sites. Andrew has noticed builders on scaffolding without hats, and items being lifted and lowered with no safety barriers, while pedestrians walk beneath—not just on one site, but generally. Is this (I speculate) another facet of the same basic attitude that gives rise to the existence of the coffee shops and the prostitution?

If I were younger I would start asking at this point “and is it a good or a bad thing?” But these days I don’t think in those terms nearly so much. It’s an interesting thing, that’s all. It gives rise to some consequences that are probably good, and some others that are undesirable. On balance, would I choose to live with it or not? I’m not sure. My answer might depend on how lucky I was feeling when you asked me. My optimistic self would find it refreshing. My pessimistic self might be scared.

Greatest art experience ever

This happened 12 years ago but it’s still vivid in my mind. I hope it always will be.

It was the year Andrew and I got engaged (we were married in 1997). We got tickets for the great Vermeer show in the Mauritshuis at The Hague. We were not the only ones looking forward to it as the best art show of the decade.

When we got there, clutching our timed tickets (for 6pm, if memory serves—purchased from the Dutch consulate in London) the museum was closing and the last visitors were being ushered out. We argued. An official was fetched. Our tickets were examined. An executive decision was taken.

For the next hour, accompanied by a bored security guard, we had exclusive access to the Vermeers. We wandered, we peered, we savoured. We ran from one to another exclaiming and comparing. Look! He’s used the same props in this one. And again—the yellow dress—look!

They aren’t very big, Vermeers. They are exquisite. They had never all been together in the same place before, and probably they never will be again. The next day, back among the crowds for a second look, joining the scrum around every painting, we realised the full value of the luck we’d had. It was amazing.

Generation gap

[OK, so now I’d better actually write some stuff.]

Recently we’ve established social contact with the son of one of my cousins, and his girlfriend. Nice young people. It’s been a curiously disturbing experience, though. Here are people who are a whole generation younger than us, but nevertheless adults. Weird. When you reach middle age you think (well, I thought) that life would run out of novel experiences to show you. But it doesn’t.

On not writing

Well, I haven’t been.

Or reading, either, in fact.

I’ve been in a state of transition, and I don’t find such states conducive to processing much in the way of input, or to producing much in the way of output. I now have the impression (though only time will tell whether I’m right about it) that smoother water lies ahead. This might be a good time to start the blog again. Let’s see.

The art of living well

I’ve been reading, with great pleasure, French women don’t get fat. It’s a supremely elegant book, both in content and in presentation – and inspiring, too.

Actually I bought my copy several months ago but couldn’t get through it then. It seemed to be promoting an ideal that was so far out of my reach as to be depressing even to think about. Not in the least inspiring.

Now it is different: I’m most of the way through my weight-loss program (with 16.8 Kg gone at the last count, obesity already a thing of the past, and entry into the ‘healthy’ range – BMI 20–25 – anticipated later this week) and am thinking hard about my future relationship with food. The book is a delightful companion on this part of the journey, and has already given rise to several pages of my notebook covered with new ideas for ways of living differently and better.

Tagged

Alan Little tagged me in a recent posting. This is what I’m supposed to do:

  1. Each player starts with 8 random facts/habits about themselves.

  2. People who are tagged write a blog post about their own 8 random things, and post these rules.

  3. At the end of your post you need to tag 8 people and include their names. Don’t forget to leave them a comment and tell them theyre tagged, and to read your blog.

  4. If you fail to do this within eight hours, you will not reach Third Series or attain your most precious goals for at least two more lifetimes.

The chance of my responding to anything within eight hours is remote, especially this week, but fortunately I have no idea what Third Series might be – so I guess what I don’t know won’t hurt me – and I don’t believe in reincarnation anyway. Here goes:

  1. I’m not a night owl any more. Maybe I never was, really. I wake early (around the summer solstice, very early indeed) and am most active early in the day.
  2. I haven’t been on an aeroplane since December 2005.
  3. I’ve lost about 12kg of body fat in the past 7 weeks. (It’s OK, don’t worry! I needed to lose it, it’s a medically-supervised programme, my doctor approves, and I feel much better for it).
  4. Tomorrow is our tenth wedding anniversary.
  5. I love to dry laundry outdoors. I study the weather forecast and wait till it’s going to be a good drying day before starting the wash. I arrange the clothes in patterns on the line: first a row of T-shirts, all with orange pegs, then a row of socks, all with yellow ones…
  6. I owned a horse for a while, a few years ago. It didn’t work out well. It was a learning experience.
  7. I’m scared of heights. It’s a problem when boating sometimes (especially when negotiating deep locks).
  8. I visit Venice most years, usually by train (the night train from Paris is best). I mean the Venice in Italy, of course, not the one in California.

The difficult bit, as Alan found, is thinking of eight people who might not mind being tagged. I don’t read very many blogs. Here are the least unpromising seven from the list in my feed reader:

  1. Rod
  2. Animoose
  3. William (but his blog is really too serious for this kind of trivia)
  4. Vicki and Alasdair (though given their posting frequency, a response is unlikely)
  5. Tromey
  6. Derek
  7. Paul Butcher? Unlikely, though – his is not really that kind of blog

I’m editing this post to remove people from the list if they don’t want to play. My original 8 is now already down to 7!

Storm in a teacup

While dramatic floods are causing mayhem in the rest of the country, all there is to report from our stretch of riverbank is … a cow in the water. There is much very localised excitement. I called out the Pindar, who turned up half an hour ago with a rope but is waiting for his team. Meanwhile the cow has got itself out of the river and is grazing on our neighbour’s back garden – which would be fine except that the only way back to where it’s supposed to be is via the road.

Family history

[ I haven’t posted much lately. Lots going on but it’s not really blog material. Meanwhile the following might be of interest. I wrote it a few months ago for one of my nieces, who was doing a school project on family history. I’ve checked with my immediate relatives and nobody can think of any reason not to post it here. ]

I heard you’re doing a project on family history and I’ve been thinking about what sort of thing you might want to know. Here are some of my thoughts. Remember that these (especially the “general ideas” that I’ve written first) are only one person’s ideas, and other people might have different ideas. It would be good to check with other people rather than just believing everything I have written.

General ideas about our family

In this section I’m going to write down some general things that I think are unusual about our family when I compare it with some other families. I’m very interested in patterns, so when I am thinking about history I look for things that happen over again in similar ways, so that they make a sort of pattern in time. (Sometimes I might go too far with this, though – I might think that things are following a pattern when actually they aren’t.)

I don’t know the whole history, of course, but I have heard quite a lot of stories about people from four or five generations of the family, so these ideas are based on those stories.

Moving to new places

The first unusual thing is that our family doesn’t have its roots in one special place. Some people, when you ask them to tell you their family history, will talk about a place (or perhaps a few places). They’ll say “That’s where we come from.” Even if they live in a different place themselves, they feel that there is a special place (a house, or a village, or a city) where their family really “belongs”.

Our family isn’t like that. In most generations, after our ancestors grew up they decided to move away to a different place to live. Nowadays lots of people do this, but in past times it was not such a normal thing to do. Our family was ahead of the times! I like to think that this is because they were clever people. They looked around at the world, and thought about what they could do best themselves, and moved to a place where they could make the best use of their own abilities.

Of course, the sad thing about all this moving around was that quite a lot of the children grew up without having relatives nearby. In other families (like part of my husband’s family, for example) there were cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents all living a short walk away.

On the other hand, a good thing about it was that they had relatives a long distance away, so they could go and visit them, and learn about how things were different in other places.

Here’s a suggestion for your project. Make a map of Britain and mark all the places where people in our family have lived. You could even draw arrows from one place to another to show how people moved. This might be quite an interesting bit of the project.

Women who do interesting things

In many families, the family history is really a history of just the men. The women only come into the story because they are the daughter, or the wife, or the mother of a man who did something interesting. They didn’t do interesting things themselves. In our family it’s not like that. The women were often in charge and made the decisions about what to do. I like that (because I’m a woman!).

Getting involved with politics

Several people in our family, particularly on Granddad’s side, have been very concerned about things that don’t seem to be fair (there are lots of examples of this kind of unfairness, such as some people having more money than others, and so on). Rather than just saying “that’s the way things are and there’s nothing you can do about it”, many of us have tried to make things better. Quite a few of us have done this by joining the Labour Party. Others didn’t agree with all of the Labour Party’s ideas but have still tried to make things better in other ways.

Of course, we haven’t solved all the problems of the world! But there are some things that we can point to, some changes that have happened that really have made things a bit better for everybody, where we can say “I helped to make that happen – maybe if I hadn’t bothered to get involved, it wouldn’t have happened at all”. This is very satisfying.

Stories about particular people

I expect you’ve already looked at the family tree and been given a list of who is who. These are just some extra stories to fill in the details. Please ask me if you need more information to understand how these stories fit into the big picture. I haven’t written about all the interesting people because I didn’t have time – it would fill a whole book!

Murdina Alice Crown (later Murdina Alice Winter): Grandma’s mother

Her family came from Sunderland, and I’m pretty sure that her mother was Irish. (Check this with Grandma because I can’t quite remember!).

She preferred to be known as Alice. I think she didn’t like the name Murdina because it’s an unusual one and she was a no-nonsense kind of person who preferred names to be more ordinary. She didn’t like “making a fuss” about things. I think it’s rather a nice name – it’s an ancient Scottish/Gaelic one originally. If it had been my name, I would have used it!

She must have been a clever girl, because after leaving school she trained to be a teacher. In those days very few girls went to University and you would only be able to do that if you came from a rich family. Training to be a teacher was the next best thing.

She married a man called Thomas Winter. He had various different jobs but didn’t earn a lot of money, so it was very lucky for the family that she was a teacher, because this gave them a home as well as money. The teacher in a village school in those days would be given a house that went with the job, so they lived in the School House, first in a village called Cliff, and later in a village next to the sea on the east coast of Yorkshire, called Atwick. Atwick was a very small village, so the school was very small too, and children of different ages sat alongside each other – there weren’t enough children to have separate classes for different ages.

(Murdina) Alice and Tom had two children, Margaret (your Grandma) and her elder sister Jean. Both of them went to the village school, so they were taught by their own mother until they were 11 years old. After that they would go to Bridlington on the bus, to the High School. It was a long bus ride, too far for children younger than 11.

When Murdina Alice got too old to work any more, she retired. By then there were even fewer children living in the village, and the education authority decided to do something different about teaching them (I’m not sure what happens now – perhaps they get a bus to somewhere nearer than Bridlington). So the school house wasn’t needed any more, and they let her and her husband stay there. They lived there for the rest of their lives. The school itself stood empty for quite a long time, but eventually it was converted into a community centre for the village.

There was an article in the local newspaper about her when she retired. Ask Grandma about this – she’s got a copy of it.

She was very musical, and used to play the piano and also the church organ. She was very good at knitting and crochet as well.

Frederick Woodall: Granddad’s grandfather

He grew up somewhere in the Midlands (Stoke-on-Trent, maybe?). I don’t know a lot about him (Granddad can tell you more, I’m sure). He was a tailor and also a Quaker. He moved to London.

He used to make tailor’s chalk (a special kind of chalk that is used for drawing lines on cloth so that you can cut it out accurately). He made white tailor’s chalk for normal use and a blue version for drawing on white cloth because white marks don’t show up on white cloth. He invented a way of making the chalk into solid pieces like little cakes, by pressing it into shape in a cylinder and then squeezing it out and chopping pieces off. To give the pieces an edge so that they could be used for drawing, he would rub them on pieces of white cloth.

One day he washed out some of the white cloths that he’d used for making an edge on the blue tailor’s chalk, and he noticed that they seemed to come out a very bright, clean-looking sparkling white. He realised that the blue colour in the blue tailor’s chalk made white cloth look “whiter than white”. He mentioned this to a man he met in a pub, who paid him £10 for it. This other man then went to a company called Reckitt and Coleman, who made washing powder, and sold them the idea. For many years afterwards they sold a special blue washing powder called Reckitt’s Blue, which was based on this invention. Ten pounds doesn’t seem like much money for such a good idea, but this was a very long time ago and money was worth much more then, so actually, thinking about it now, it doesn’t seem like such a very bad reward.

I don’t know anything else about him or his wife.

He had several children, and they all (as far as I know) went into the tailoring business. Some or all of them moved to Eastbourne, on the south coast of England. They were all Quakers. There were two daughters who never got married, and lived to be very old. Younger people in the family called them “The Aunts” and were quite scared of them – they used to boss everyone else around. I met them once when they were very old and I was a very little girl (younger than you are now). Ask Granddad about them.

There was also a son in this family, who was…

Henry Woodall: Granddad’s father

I never met him. He died just before I was born, but I have heard quite a lot of stories about him.

One of the special things about being a Quaker is that Quakers refuse to join in when there is a war. They won’t join the army, the navy or the air force, because they don’t believe that being violent is ever the solution to any problem. They even refuse to join when the government is telling everybody to join, which happens sometimes in history (not very often – only when there is a really big war going on). This is called being a Conscientious Objector.

When Henry Woodall was a young man, the First World War happened, and he was a Conscientious Objector. Instead of joining in with the fighting, he decided to do something to help make things better, so he joined with other Quakers who were organising an ambulance service to rescue injured soldiers from the battlefields. He had to be very brave to do this, because it was very dangerous to go onto battlefields where there were lots of bullets and bombs. He probably spent more time in those dangerous places than a lot of the soldiers did, so he was quite lucky to come out of it alive.

He was given some medals later on for what he did with the Quakers’ ambulance service. (Your Dad has got these medals now – ask him to show you). Another interesting thing happened because of this later on, after the war was over: one of the men he had worked with in the ambulance service had a father who was called Ramsay MacDonald. About six years after the war ended, Ramsay MacDonald became Prime Minister (he was the first ever Labour Prime Minister), so Granddad’s father got to go to a party at number 10 Downing Street for all the people who had worked on the ambulance service.

He lived on for another 40 years after the end of the First World War. As well as being a tailor, and carrying on being a Quaker, he was very good at playing bowls. He won a lot of cups and trophies for this.

He was married to…

Evelyn Avis (later Evelyn Woodall): Granddad’s mother

I don’t know much about her early life or her parents. I think her family didn’t have very much money. She was quite clever but she had to leave school quite young to get a job and start earning money. She started work as an apprentice tailor in the Woodall family’s business, and this is how she met Henry, who later on became her husband. I don’t know whether her family were Quakers or whether she became a Quaker after meeting him, but anyway she was one for all the rest of her life.

She and Henry set up a tailoring business together in Eastbourne. They lived in a tall house. The ground floor was the shop, where customers would come to be measured and to choose the materials for their clothes. At the back, behind the shop, was the workroom where they would cut out the clothes and sew them together. Upstairs were the living rooms and bedrooms.

Henry was a very skilled tailor but he didn’t have the ability to manage a business, and would not have been able to do it on his own. The business worked well because both of them worked at it together. A woman came in to help in the house and look after the children so that Evelyn had time to work at the tailoring business. (I suppose the proper word for a woman who does that sort of job is a “servant”, but I think that gives the wrong impression because they weren’t the kind of rich people who you think of as having servants – they just needed somebody to help out because of the business).

The Second World War caused a big change in their lives. They were too old to need to worry about being involved in the war itself (only young adults get told to join armies and navies etc usually, and by this time they were middle-aged, not young any more), but the war still caused them big problems. Because Eastbourne is on the south coast, German bombers would fly over on the way to London, so lots of their customers moved away and went to live in places they thought were safer. Now there were not enough people left in Eastbourne who wanted to pay to have their clothes made, so the tailoring business stopped making enough money to pay for the family to live. Evelyn and Henry therefore had to move.

They decided to go and start again in a town called Abergavenny in South Wales. It must have been difficult for them, starting up their business all over again in a new place where nobody knew them. I don’t know why they chose Abergavenny. There were very few Quakers there, and most of the other people were Welsh. They must have felt very left out to begin with. But eventually it worked out alright, and they found enough people who wanted to pay to have clothes made. They also found a house that was arranged in the same way as the house in Eastbourne had been, with a shop and a workroom on the ground floor, and the living rooms upstairs, and they stayed there all the rest of their lives.

Lots more people…

Oh dear! I’ve been typing all day nearly, and I’ve left so much out. I’d better stop now and get some work done. If I have time, I’ll write again and fill in some more facts about other people.

Some things on the Web

Here are some things you can find on the Internet about people in our family.

Granddad has done lots of research work in computer science and mathematics. Here you can see a list of some articles he has written. Actually that only shows a few of them, just the most recent ones. There is a famous computer science textbook by Donald Knuth called The Art of Computer Programming. Granddad is mentioned in this! His name is in the index. Maybe you could include a photocopy of that bit of the index in your project.

Here is a bit about the village of Atwick. (There is a caravan site at Atwick. You could go and see what it’s like. The sea there is very cold!)

Here is a website about the Quakers.

By the way, if you want to know anything about me, you can look at my personal website.


Dealing with errors

Unintended distractions impede communication

My work is about improving the flow of information. To communicate ideas successfully to other people you need to get rid of distractions because they will irritate your audience and divert attention from your message. Errors of fact, errors in grammar and punctuation, inconsistencies in style and infelicities in appearance can all distract your readers.

Strategies for minimising errors

There are three distinct approaches to the problem. They are not alternatives: you need to do them all.

  • Check finished work so as to find the errors in it
  • For each error that you know exists, decide what to do about it
  • Improve working methods so as to reduce the occurrence of errors

The process of finding errors

To find errors that might impede communication you have to think about how the recipient might misunderstand your meaning. You have to look with fresh eyes at the draft publication, examining it for errors, ambiguities and opacities that might cause a reader to waste time trying to fit incorrect but plausible possible meanings to it, or to start thinking about some other aspect of the material that doesn’t relate to the ideas you are trying to convey.

I am excited by the work of identifying errors and infelicities, whether they occur in text, in pictures or in computer source code. I enjoy the mental process involved: the imaginative effort that it takes to put oneself into the position of the reader (or the computer), lacking the background knowledge that would resolve ambiguities, and then to see whether the text still makes sense. I also enjoy the state of total immersion in the task, which is absolutely necessary for this work of polishing and improving – it can’t be done if you have any part of your mind on something else.

It happens that I am rather good at this. As a reader I am very easily distracted and misled by errors in text, even those that many other readers don’t see. They irritate me and make my mind wander away from what the author is trying to say. It can be a real annoyance when I’m reading for information, but this propensity is exactly what gives me the ability to do this sort of work successfully.

See my art pages to understand the connection between the way I think about making (or editing) pictures and the way I edit text or software. There are some surprising parallels here.

Deciding whether errors are worth correcting

To make a thoroughly professional job of preparing a publication you have to do something that is more difficult, and less satisfying, than simply finding the errors – but absolutely necessary. You have to decide, for each error you have found, whether it is worth fixing: whether the risk incurred by making the change is greater than the risk of harm being done by leaving the error in. The hardest thing about this work is having to make a decision to leave a known error uncorrected.

To a person inexperienced in the field it is very hard to see why this should ever be necessary. It is very difficult to persuade authors of text that a correction, although clearly desirable, simply can’t be done – even if the book hasn’t been printed yet. Similarly, restraining junior programmers, especially very able ones, from fixing bugs in software is very difficult. The most important task for the professional handler of errors is to make the right decision about each error and to persuade everyone else involved to accept it.

These are the things we have to weigh when deciding whether to correct an error:

  • How much will the correction cost? How much work will have to be re-done as a consequence of the change? How much delay will be caused? What is the cost of the delay?
  • How much harm would the uncorrected error cause? Can the user or reader, although perhaps annoyed by it, work around it without serious inconvenience? How much will the presence of the error harm our reputation or weaken the case we are trying to make?
  • What new errors do we risk introducing in our efforts to correct this one? Are we likely to notice them in the time we have left to re-check the final result? What is the risk that they turn out to be worse – more harmful – errors than this one?

In the software industry this decision process is commonly referred to by a term borrowed from the field of emergency medicine: triage. It is usually the responsibility of a release manager working in conjunction with a product manager. I have done a lot of work in this area.

Preventing errors from occurring

Dealing with errors in a publication is in some ways analogous to the job of testing and debugging a software system. To communicate successfully with a computer you need to avoid making errors of logic that will mislead it. This is not very different, conceptually, from the process of eliminating errors in the text and layout of publications to prevent them misleading human readers. As a software engineer I spent a lot of my time worrying about errors and devising ways of preventing them appearing, and I became an advocate for the use of configuration management systems, portable programming techniques and coding standards long before the need for these things was generally taken for granted. I learned some valuable lessons from this, many of which I believe are applicable in publishing also.

Since I began my career in the software industry in the early 1980s I have seen huge advances in the understanding of error prevention and in the general acceptance of systems and working practices that help with it. In the 1980s and early 1990s some respected software developers would argue passionately against the use of a source code control system on the grounds that it stifled their creativity, or object to running nightly builds and automated tests on the grounds that they wasted resources. This kind of thing is much less common today. I believe the same kind of change will eventually happen in the publishing industry also.