Bridging the gap from student-level to professional-quality writing skills
July 7, 2008 6:23 AM   Subscribe

How do I improve my writing skills beyond the good-enough-for-a-student level when my school seems neither interested nor capable of teaching me?

I write decently, but almost everything I "know" about how to write I picked up from reading and not from studying the "rules". I guess at what is "correct" based on whether it "sounds right" to me -- I can't articulate *why* something sounds correct or incorrect. I am not confident in my writing ability because I lack this underlying knowledge of the rules of written English. I want to improve my writing skills until I *know* I'm doing it right.

I must be making errors in grammar, mechanics, usage, etc., but I don't know what they are. I also don't know what the most effective strategy would be for detecting and permanently expunging these errors from my writing. I feel like I've hit a plateau in my efforts to improve on my own and I'm frustrated and dissatisfied with the classes I've taken.

My goal is to eventually write publishable informational/instructional websites, articles, and books on how-to, self-improvement, and personal finance topics. Also, I am studying to become an accountant for my "day job" and I want to write well for my bosses, professional colleagues, and clients. I am *not* interested in writing fiction, poetry, or "creative nonfiction".

I do understand that there is a lot more to writing well than just following the "rules", but I really want to get the basics perfect first. Personally, when I notice grammar, punctuation, spelling, and usage errors in others' writing I think it undermines their message and lowers my opinion of their intelligence. So I want to eliminate the errors from my writing that would distract judgmental assholes like me. :)

I expected that my college professors would help me with this, but they haven't. My ideal solution now would be a free or very cheap one-on-one writing tutor who was competent to critique/teach me, but I don't know if its possible to find such a person because of the price/quality tradeoff.

I'd appreciate suggestions for more effective self-teaching methods as well.

The rest of this long post merely describes in detail what I've already tried and what else I'm considering. Please feel free to skip it if you don't care, and I will feel free to skip your suggestions if they don't apply to my circumstances. :)


Strategies I've already tried:

Classes: Writing research papers for my undergraduate classes helped, but around my junior year my professors stopped giving me feedback on my writing and only critiqued the content. The campus Writing Center (staffed by English undergraduates) also stopped being useful around the same time.

I tried taking a senior-level undergraduate business writing class at school this summer but so far it has been more disaster than help. Many of my classmates are such terrible writers that I have no idea how they passed English 101 and 102, and the instructor understandably spends most of his time trying to help those students achieve an employable level of competence. Similarly, I've spent most of *my* time for this class managing my flaky group project teammates and compensating for their research- and writing-skill deficiencies. I've had very little time to work on polishing my own individual writing, am generally stressed out and miserable from the extra workload, and regret ever registering for the class. Despite this, I've received A's and almost no critical feedback from the instructor for the half-assed rough drafts I've turned in. Also, I've noticed errors in the instructor's own writing (he is a retired businessman, not an English academic) and so I don't think he's the right person to help me with my general writing skills.

A couple of years ago I tried taking a couple of the non-credit online writing courses from Writer's Digest magazine. I didn't complete them (due to a combination of poor distance-learning discipline and unexpected disruptions in my personal life) but my impression was that they were rather skimpy and superficial for the price.

Blogging: I used to have a public personal blog and some of my readers would helpfully point out my writing errors for me. However, I shut it down and don't want to write for a public audience again until I'm ready to write at a professional-quality level on non-personal topics. I also don't have enough free time now to participate in other online communities enough to benefit from prowling grammar nazis.

Books: Yes, I have read Strunk & White's Elements of Style. I am open to other book suggestions. However, I haven't found reading about writing to be a very effective learning method for me.


Strategies I'm considering:

Classes: The business writing class I'm taking this summer is the prerequisite for a 6-course "Professional Writing Certificate" that I plan to enroll in as a supplement to my MS Accounting program. However, I am worried now, given my experience in the business writing class and the generally low standards at my school, that I won't actually learn much from it. (Still a useful credential, though.) Most people here only seem to care about students' work being "good enough" and there isn't much effort to help the better students perfect their skills.

Join a writing group: There are a couple in my city. I haven't been to a meeting yet, but their websites gave me the impression that most of the members are unpublished aspiring novelists and they spend most of the meetings reading their drafts aloud to each other. That sounds... torturous to me. But I will try to reserve final judgment until I have actually been to a meeting or two.

Join an online writing group: This seems more promising because I won't have to suffer through anyone's dramatic reading of their precious brainchild. However, I don't think participation in any writing group would help me much unless most of the other members were much better writers than me. I don't have the time or expertise to tutor people in basic writing skills -- I'm forced to do way too much of that already for my group projects at school. I know that sounds selfish, but it's just not the best use of my time. So I don't know what I could offer a writing group that had anything to offer me.

Just start submitting articles for publication: This is my husband's idea. He thinks I write "fine" and that editors will give me feedback about my mistakes. I am skeptical because my husband says/writes things like "me and her went to the mall" and thus does not seem competent to judge whether someone's writing is publishable. :) I also doubt that editors waste their time giving detailed feedback to random freelancers. (If/when I do try freelancing, I will buy the latest edition of the Writer's Market and follow all its relevant advice about how to submit and where.)

Read/study the Chicago Manual of Style cover-to-cover: This would probably eventually work but doesn't seem like it would be the most effective way to learn.

Hire a tutor: I mentioned this earlier as my ideal solution, but I doubt that I can afford to hire a quality tutor. I also don't know how to assess his or her competence to teach me. However, if you know an expert writer who really gets off on correcting others' writing mistakes, can explain precisely why an error is an error and the rule for rewriting it correctly, and is a starving English grad student or adjunct willing to work for very low pay and the warm fuzzy satisfaction of eliminating a few more grammatical abominations, mechanical nits, and misused words from the world -- please send him or her my way and maybe we can work something out!


Any ideas? Thanks!
posted by Jacqueline to Writing & Language (33 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
 
I found your post clear, well organized, and free of the "errors" you're worried about (although I certainly wasn't looking for them). If this is typical of your work, it looks to me like your writing is fine. I agree with your husband--start submitting. Editors may find many reasons not to take your work, but it won't be because of fundamental writing problems.

I don't know if business/technical writers ever do this, but I think the three basic strategies for academic writing might be useful: know your audience, read lots of good examples of the kind of work you want to produce, and discuss your writing with your peers rather than looking only to authority.

Good luck!
posted by Mngo at 6:40 AM on July 7, 2008 [3 favorites]


Your writing is already better than that of many professional non-fiction writers, so you're off to a good start.

You haven't mentioned learning a foreign language. When I was at school they didn't teach us much about grammar, and only a little about punctuation. I learned more about English grammar (both the terminology and how it works) from taking an introductory foreign language course than I ever did at school.

Read as many style and usage guides as you can. You'll see the differences in opinions and the arguments they make to support those opinions. Just like it is better for independent thought to read different newspapers rather than the same one all the time, you'll learn a lot about usage issues this way: who supports which view and why, and how pedantic they're being. Off the top of my head, I have copies of Fowler's Modern English Usage, Gowers's The Complete Plain Words, The King's English, Strunk and White, The Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors, The Chicago Manual of Style, Bugs in Writing, and several more. (Some of those are U.K.-centric of course.)

The USENET newsgroup alt.usage.english was for a long time a great place to lurk and learn. It may still be.
posted by galaksit at 6:42 AM on July 7, 2008 [1 favorite]


I write decently, but almost everything I "know" about how to write I picked up from reading and not from studying the "rules".
Well, OK, two more quick and contradictory things. First, the "rules" are a hindrance rather than a help if they prevent you from expressing yourself. And second, the terminal punctuation, counter-intuitively, should go inside the quotation marks in the sentence ending "rules." (This is Chicago 5.11-13, but note exceptions in 5.13).
And I agree with galaksit--you're better than so many folks I read every day!
posted by Mngo at 6:48 AM on July 7, 2008 [1 favorite]


However, I don't think participation in any writing group would help me much unless most of the other members were much better writers than me.

FYI, and only because you're explicitly asking for help with usage, traditional grammar would have "much better writers than I [am]." I don't think traditional grammar is right about this, and I don't monitor it in my own writing.

Personally, I think that once your grammar, usage, and mechanics are at the level they are at, editors won't reject you on that basis. I'll add the caveat here, though, that I assume you write in a more formal and methodical way generally; your style here is casual and conversational, which is perfectly appropriate for a Metafilter post, but not necessarily in other contexts. A writer doesn't have to be a copy-editor; there are copy-editors for that. That doesn't mean you can be sloppy, but you don't have to be an expert.

If you really want to improve your writing, I would look at the next level up from the level of grammar and usage: at whether your sentences are vivid and clear, at whether your paragraphs follow each other logically, at whether you know how to cut excess information without cutting out what's unique and interesting. But if you truly do want to focus on the mechanics - what about contacting a freelance copy editor?
posted by Jeanne at 6:53 AM on July 7, 2008


I understand your frustration. It wasn't until I was writing my master's thesis and having to reference a writing guide very regularly (APA for my program) that I really started learning some of the more detailed rules for writing. My suggestion would be to reference your writing guide periodically as you write papers, even for things that seem as simple as how to bullet lists and number pages. I learned more from this approach than I did from any class.
posted by All.star at 6:54 AM on July 7, 2008


Read good writers. Dickens in particular is the best craftsman I've ever seen -- his novels are worth a whole formal education in composition.
posted by futility closet at 7:02 AM on July 7, 2008


I've had many of the same feelings about my writing. I remember turning in papers in college that I was sure were full of grammatical errors, and then getting back an "A" with no grammatical comments at all. I think this happens because once you get to a certain level, your grammatical mistakes aren't noticeable to anyone but editors and writers of grammar books.

I've made several attempts to study grammar until I could write with 100% confidence that i was doing everything "the right way." I always found that when you get down into the weeds of grammar, things get very vague and unimportant. You'll start struggling with rules that 99% of readers wouldn't notice one way or the other.

I'm a technical writer now, and some of my work is reviewed by editors. I'm far from a grammar expert, but I rarely get comments related to grammar mistakes. Most of the comments are pointing out typos or making suggestions for improving clarity.

My advice is to start submitting articles for publication. I think two things will happen (depending on the publication). You will either receive very few comments, which should give you confidence that you're writing is "good enough," or you will receive lots of comments about some of the finer points. This will show you that you aren't missing anything major, and will give you some examples of the areas you need to work on.

Here's a book I like: Amazon Link

It covers all of the grammar basics without getting too detailed. I keep it on my desk for all the times that my confidence wavers ;)

On preview: What everybody else said!
posted by diogenes at 7:04 AM on July 7, 2008 [1 favorite]


It sounds like you have mostly explored resources for improving writing in general, whereas the kinds of skills you are looking for are closer to editing. Most writing classes, books, etc. assume that you are competent in the basics and focus on content.

For an aspiring novelist, focusing on how to craft a story rather than how to correctly place punctuation is probably a good idea, which is why a lot of resources for those kinds of writers will not be very helpful to you. I would suggest looking for resources for editing, rather than writing, because those kinds of resources will probably better match the skills that you want to improve.
posted by burnmp3s at 7:10 AM on July 7, 2008


Just as an example of why focusing on the rules can more of a hindrance than a help:

"the terminal punctuation, counter-intuitively, should go inside the quotation marks in the sentence ending "rules." (This is Chicago 5.11-13, but note exceptions in 5.13)."
posted by Mngo


This is not true for the MLA (Modern Languages Association) guides, which I follow. What is right for one person is wrong for someone else. So you see, everyone follows different sets of rules. An editor explained to me that, depending on who she's editing for, she has to have upwards of 12 different style guides in her head at all times.

Language is a fluid and organic entity that has evolved, and will continue to evolve, over time. Thus (as far as I know) there is no absolutely definitive set of rules beyond basic grammar (I mean, it's not like everyone sat down together to lay the groundwork and only *then* started speaking to each other). Just a bunch of "authorities", each with their own arbitrary and conflicting opinions.

Your writing is already better than that of 90% of the population. I don't see how knowing rules would do anything for you, unless you were aiming to become a tutor.
posted by GardenGal at 7:17 AM on July 7, 2008


Take a college level grammar course.

Or, try writing about grammar and usage. You will learn research skills, organizational skills, expression skills, and presentation skills. And you will learn grammar skills.
posted by notyou at 7:19 AM on July 7, 2008


As with any art: Practice. All the time. Every day. Practice.
posted by tomboko at 7:23 AM on July 7, 2008


Or. To take your writing in an even more formal direction, try wrapping your head around the Figures of Speech collected here.

Parallelism is a good place to start.
posted by notyou at 7:37 AM on July 7, 2008 [2 favorites]


I feel your pain. I went through the same thing. I got As on all my writing assignments, and most of the comments were "very good," "excellent," and the like. Though I loved the praise, I wasn't learning anything. It seemed to me that as-long-as I wasn't Shakespeare or Hemingway, there was room for improvement. But I didn't know how to improve, and no one was helping me.

Here's what I did: I went to my college's Writing Center. Does your college have one? Most do. The Writing Center at mine was intended to help students with poor writing skills. It was the place professors sent students who could barely string two words together. You could go there and get private tutoring for free, because it was part of the university.

I met with one of the writing tutors there and was very honest with her. I told her that I got good grades and that most teachers considered me an excellent writer, but that I wanted to be a better writer. She agreed to meet with me once a week. I think she was excited about tutoring someone who could actually write meaningful sentences.

As I hoped, she was really tough on me. I learned a lot.
posted by grumblebee at 8:41 AM on July 7, 2008


I think that you've ruled the best way of improving your writing: by writing. You say that you "don't want to write for a public audience again" until you've improved your writing, but writing for a public audience is the best way to improve your writing. You say that you "don't have enough free time" to write for online communities, but writing for others who will tell you when you're being understood and making good points is the best way to hone your craft. If you're not willing to make mistakes and be critiqued by the public and spend some serious time writing for others, you're never going to improve. Writers are people who write. So start writing, for whoever will read your stuff. Write online, submit letters and op-eds and articles to your local paper, keep a journal, write whenever you get the chance. Just write, and you'll find yourself improving, particularly as you interact with others who write.

"the terminal punctuation, counter-intuitively, should go inside the quotation marks in the sentence ending "rules." (This is Chicago 5.11-13, but note exceptions in 5.13)."

This is not true for the MLA (Modern Languages Association) guides, which I follow. What is right for one person is wrong for someone else. So you see, everyone follows different sets of rules.


The American MLA rules do, in fact, dictate that periods and commas be placed inside of quotation marks. Colons and semicolons are placed outside of quotation marks. See this guide or this one. Australia and Britain have their own MLA style that places all punctuation outside of quotation marks, but that style is not correct for American writing.

posted by decathecting at 8:41 AM on July 7, 2008


Read. Read some more. Keep reading.

Not Strunk and White or the Chicago Manual but anything else. Books, magazines, newspapers, backs of cereal cartons. Anything. Look at the writing and say "Is that what I would have wrote?" and if not, why not? Would your version have been better or worse? Why? And so on...
posted by alby at 8:47 AM on July 7, 2008


Start compiling a good reference library of grammar and style books, so that you can refer to them as you write. galaksit has a lot of good ideas for books, but I'd also add a dictionary, thesaurus, and Garner's Modern American Usage (even if you aren't American; I'm Canadian and I find it useful).
posted by pised at 9:14 AM on July 7, 2008 [1 favorite]


Read widely and critically. Write regularly. Try exercises like "write 500 words on random subject X in 60 minutes" (in the form of a magazine article, instructional manual, etc). Put your work away and review it a week or a month later—this can be sobering. If you've got any ear at all, you'll see a lot of ways you can improve your writing, and this process helps make those improvements an automatic part of your first draft.

I agree that getting your work critiqued by others helps you to improve it fast. If you can join a writing circle, do so.

Use fewer "scare quotes."

Reading the Chicago Manual will not make you a better writer beyond the most mechanical aspects of text production. That said, if you aspire to be a professional technical writer, it's important to be acquainted with it (as a jumping-off point), and to be prepared to absorb different style guides. You might find yourself getting regular work from a client that follows the APA style guide or whatever, and you'll need to be able to follow that.
posted by adamrice at 9:21 AM on July 7, 2008 [1 favorite]


Book: Joseph M Williams, Style: Toward Clarity and Grace (Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, & Publishing) is often recommended.

On rules: there may be rules for spelling and grammar, there are not hard and fast rules for good writing. Good writing is what sounds good, and what communicates ideas effectively. Learning by example, practice, and critique by your peers is how it is good writing is learnt.

On writing groups: Writing groups do consist of people reading out their work to be critiqued, though there are sometimes more structured practices. In them I have encountered everyone from absolute beginners to writers who have been published over 40 or 50 years. The point about writing groups is not just that they are your fellow writers but that they are also your potential audience and thus everyone is capable of useful criticism. The best advice often comes from those you least expect it of. Strangely I have very rarely encountered people doing "dramatic reading of their precious brainchild." except among those convinced of their own merit, who might think that participation in any writing group would not help them much unless most of the other members were much better writers than themselves.
posted by tallus at 10:02 AM on July 7, 2008 [1 favorite]


There are three tricks to learning to write:

1) Read a lot.

2) Write a lot.

3) Seek out and listen to feedback about your writing.

In other words, you're doing everything right.

One small thing - no need for asterisks or quotes to emphasize your points - let the words stand on their own and be confident that readers will understand the emphasis.
posted by serazin at 10:06 AM on July 7, 2008


I teach English to speakers of other languages, at all levels from total beginners to the essentially proficient who speak and write flawlessly. The best thing I have my students do for writing practice is go through multiple drafts of a particular assignment. And with peer involvement, at any level different people will read something different ways, offer advice, suggest changes; even for my own writing back in college, I found that after I had my "final draft," printing it out and going over it with pencil made me more aware of things that are hard to see on a screen or fix with a keyboard.

So: drafts.
posted by mdonley at 10:33 AM on July 7, 2008


Your writing, while technically fine, is far from concise. As an exercise you should take your entire askme post and edit it down. The thing weighs in at over 1,300 words - see if you can communicate the same thoughts using less words.

Most professional writing of the kind found in business or journalism is meant to be short and to the point.

Indeed, the whole section where you're whining about your instructors and classmates is completely superfluous to your question.

[In the future you should audit classes, or speak with instructors about your goals as a writer before taking them - that way you can avoid such predicaments. Also, shame on you for feeling you have to "manage" flaky classmates rather than genuinely helping them.]

Following the rules of grammar and usage shows respect for the reader, but if you can't write concisely for your audience then you're still tiring the reader out.

Self-editing is important for grammar obviously, but perhaps more so for content.

Lastly, if you read Strunk & White then you should have learned the following:
Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.
posted by wfrgms at 10:36 AM on July 7, 2008 [1 favorite]


I agree with notyou's suggestion to take a college level grammar course. But, also, based on this post it seems to me that you already have the basic skills of grammar and mechanics needed to write a self-help book or how to article. If you're looking to learn how to more skillfully structure sentences and otherwise improve your writing in more advanced ways, one of the best ways to do so is to practice by writing and submitting articles. I know you feel like you have to be more polished first, but it seems like you feel constrained within the confines of your school, and I think maybe if you take the chance to send your writing out into the wider world you'll grow into that space. Even just knowing that you're writing with the intention of submitting might inspire you to higher accomplishments.

I know there's a lively online community of fiction writers who talk about their struggles and learning processes and often share advice for new and aspiring writers, and I bet there's something similar for non-fiction writers. Are there any writers you particularly admire? It might be useful to see if they have blogs, or to research how they learned to write, books they recommend, workshops they attended or put on, etc.

Good luck!
posted by overglow at 11:33 AM on July 7, 2008 [1 favorite]


As a student I had a freelance job at the university newspaper. With the help of the editors I learned some basic things about professional writing:
- grammar rules beyond the basics
- structures of articles and stories
- the most important: unambiguous writing in a concise manner
Just call the head editor of your local newspaper, and bring some of your news articles with you. Good luck!
posted by Psychnic at 12:32 PM on July 7, 2008


I learned the most about how to write well by becoming a tutor, not seeing one. My college offered a class for students interesting in becoming writing tutors, and the professor hired students from the class to staff the writing center.

Before the class I had received an A- my second semester English class, and I had written every paper the night before. I had no troubles in the English class.

In the writing tutoring class, I failed the beginner grammar and structure test. My papers came back bleeding red with all of my grammar mistakes.

Assuming you don't take this path, there are a few other techniques you may wish to keep in mind:

When you have someone critiquing your writing, tell them what to look for. What are you concerned about? Grammar? Flow? Organization? This will give them something to look for.

Read more.

Ask someone to read your writing out loud to you. You can see where they hang up, pause, sigh, or get bored. This is a natural feedback that doesn't take a lot of effort on the part of your reader, yet if you listen carefully, it will give you clues on what you should work on.
posted by Monday at 1:05 PM on July 7, 2008 [1 favorite]


The book that got me on style and grammar is Sin and Syntax. Entertaining and informative.
posted by Korou at 1:28 PM on July 7, 2008


Bad writers add words. Good ones delete them. As wfrgms says, the most important rule is OMIT NEEDLESS WORDS. Strike each adjective and adverb unless the sentence is meaningless without them. Strike intensifiers ("energy," not "sheer energy"). Strike anything that doesn't aim straight at your goal.

Read Fowler (2nd edition, not 3rd) cover to cover. Begin with his tour de force on Idola Fori.

Bad writers use abstract words: "In accordance with instructions heretofore given by higher authority, he caused his implement to come in contact with the soil, and a polluting effect was observed. . . . Dissolved aqueous oxygen levels were reduced below minima requisite for continued viability of aquatic fauna."

Good writers use concrete ones: "As the Lord had commanded, he smote his staff upon the ground, and all the waters of Egypt were turned into blood. . . . All the fish that were in the river died."

Read Twain, Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses and Fenimore Cooper's Further Literary Offenses.

Read the good writers: Twain, Dickens, Trollope, Austen, Joseph Mitchell, A.J. Liebling and the Book of Common Prayer.
posted by KRS at 2:27 PM on July 7, 2008 [1 favorite]


I'm told that learning Latin helps with this, if only because it gives one an intuition for many of the rules that make sense only in Latin, but were carried over to English.

Beyond that, I can't help. Experience and criticism worked for me: a series of employers battered better writing into me.
posted by paultopia at 3:12 PM on July 7, 2008 [1 favorite]


I'm told that learning Latin helps with this, if only because it gives one an intuition for many of the rules that make sense only in Latin, but were carried over to English.

This is exactly what I was going to recommend. I'm an English major, and I've enrolled in every kind of writing-intensive course offered to me since...well, since grade school. I only started taking Latin last fall, and in two semesters I've learned more about parsing, syntax, and grammar than all my combined writing classes have ever taught me.
I know you've already tried taking courses, but trust me, Classics professors are the most pedantic people you will ever meet when it comes to this kind of thing. There is no guessing, there is no "what sounds right." There is right, and there is wrong, with little room in between for interpretation.
If you want writing that's interesting, then yes, do take Textual Analysis, Creative Writing, Journalism and Chaucer. But if you want to write "correctly," then go find you a crotchety, old, judgmental asshole, British professor of Latin. Plus, as an added bonus, you'll learn the origins of innumerable English words and idioms.


Also, never take English/Writing courses from Business teachers.
posted by Demogorgon at 5:24 PM on July 7, 2008


If you're going to make yourself read a grammar/usage guide, I recommend Hacker's A Writer's Reference (for the basics and terminology) and second the previous recommendation of Garner's Modern American Usage (for the finer points).

There's only so much you can learn about writing from classes (and I say that as someone who teaching English for part of my living). The only key to good writing--besides writing as much and as self-consciously as possible--is reading widely and voraciously, especially the works of writers whose style you seek to imitate.
posted by wheat at 7:50 PM on July 7, 2008


I'll second the recommendations for Fowler, Modern English Usage; Joseph Williams, Style; and Constance Hale, Sin and Syntax. However, I would no more advise taking a college-level grammar course if your goal is to write better than I would advise taking a course in music theory if your goal is to play the piano better. In both cases you might learn something useful, but there are more direct routes to your goal.
posted by brianogilvie at 8:03 PM on July 7, 2008


Find someone you know is a good writer and pay them to review your writings. They'll point out what's wrong and why.
posted by xammerboy at 10:21 PM on July 7, 2008


Ha! Make that "teaches." That's what I get for posting late at night w/o previewing. :)
posted by wheat at 8:30 AM on July 8, 2008


Thanks everyone!
posted by Jacqueline at 2:46 PM on July 15, 2008


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