I’m in the process of editing a document for a technical project that is intended to be an introduction for newbies to certain fairly complex issues. While requesting feedback on the project mailing list, I realized that I had accidentally revealed a major secret of really top-grade writing, exactly the sort of thing that put The Cathedral and the Bazaar on the New York Times best-seller list.
I see no reason not to share it with my readers. So here is the relevant part of my request for feedback:
Please fix typos and outright grammatical errors. If you think you have spotted a higher-level usage problem or awkwardness, check with me before changing it. What you think is technically erroneous may be expressive voice.
Explanation: Style is the contrast between expectation and surprise. Poets writing metric poetry learn to introduce small breaks in scansion in order to induce tension-and-release cycles at a higher level that will hold the reader’s interest. The corresponding prose trick is to bend usage rules or change the register of the writing slightly away from what the reader unconsciously expects. If you try to “fix” these you will probably be stepping on an intended effect. So check first.
(I will also observe that unless you are already an unusually skilled writer, you should not try to replicate this technique; the risk of sounding affected or just teeth-jarringly bad is high. As Penn & Teller puts it, “These stunts are being performed by trained, professional idiots.”)