Joys of Proofreading

Do you love proofreading, or do you hate it? Do you force yourself to check over your written copy, or do you attach your manuscript blithely to emailed submissions to editors and press “Send” in the hope/belief that all is well despite neglecting to skim over that story one more time? Are you dyslexic? Are you a poor speller? Are you never sure whether an appositive clause should be closed by a comma? Should you or should you not use the “Oxford comma” and do you even know what that means?

Why don’t we check our copy thoroughly and carefully before we submit it?

The push to meet a deadline can be hanging over our heads like lowering barometric pressure, but that doesn’t excuse any writer from completing the job. And no story is complete until it’s checked for factual, spelling, punctuation, and sense errors.

On the door of my campus office is a saying: ALWAYS PROOFREAD. YOU MIGHT HAVE SOMETHING OUT.

Computers perform many useful, wonderful functions for us but even they can’t catch sense errors or understand the difference between two, to, and too. As humans allow technology to sweep them into faster and faster lives, it’s easy to get in a rush and convince yourself that a quick glance at your computer screen is sufficient to catch everything.

Except it’s not. Scientists are finding out that our brains process information differently from reading paper than a computer screen. That, in turn, affects what details we notice and what we overlook.

Expert proofreaders know that the best way to catch errors is still by reading a paper copy. However, the real world doesn’t always grant us that leisure. For example, for the past two weeks, I have been carefully combing through certain novels in my back list, checking to be sure the OCR scanner doo-dad hasn’t made any peculiar errors. An entire science fiction series from my past endeavors–the TIME TRAP books–will be going up in new electronic versions next week, with more of my older science fiction and fantasy to follow in February. Needless to say, I have been busier than a squirrel storing acorns in trying to catch up, keep up, and stay up.

I’m checking a pdf conversion, line by line, onscreen. I can’t use track changes to edit or correct the errors I find and I can’t print out a paper copy. So I’m doing my best not to let myself be caught up in the rapidity of the story pacing or in the dilemmas faced by the characters. I’m staying emotionally uninvolved, looking for errors the scanner failed to catch or else garbled. Things like “tenor” instead of “terror” or “he” instead of “be.”

Tedious work? Yes. Yet it must be done if my readers are to enjoy the stories with as few distractions as possible. And what can be more distracting than a misspelled word? It’s like trying to conduct a job interview with an applicant that has an enormous red zit glowing on the end of her nose. You can’t help but stare, no matter how hard you try.

Writers work very hard on plot, characterization, viewpoint, pacing, and setting. Perhaps they shouldn’t have to do the proofreading as well. And yet, who better for the job? Who has a bigger stake in presenting a smooth, error-free story under your name than you?

My writing career began long enough ago that I experienced publishing done the “old way” when my manuscripts passed through the hands of editors, copy editors, and proofreaders in addition to my own checking. Now, with reduced editorial staffs, writers must take on more production responsibility in seeing their work brought to print. Or, if writers are self-publishing, they must take sole charge of checking for errors and glitches.

But what happens if you aren’t by nature a meticulous, detail-oriented reader? What if you can’t detach yourself from your story or your characters’ emotional angst in order to look for correct comma placement? And, heaven forbid, what if you simply don’t know what correct comma placement IS?

If you’re shaky on punctuation rules, then it’s time to learn them. Too back-to-school for you? Yet a writer unwilling to learn punctuation is like a carpenter unwilling to measure.

The best guide remains Strunk & White. It’s short, simple, and relatively inexpensive. Or look up punctuation rules online. Information is plentiful.

Besides study, turn on the computer checker for grammar and punctuation errors. It’s not 100% foolproof by any means, but at least it will flag the most egregious mistakes and offer you suggestions for correction. The computer will also search for spelling goofs. Again, it’s not perfect. You can’t rely solely on the computer software to catch everything, and you’ll still have to read over it yourself, but it’s very useful.

You can also hire a proofreader. Universities usually have writing centers that offer tutorials, but you can hire students majoring in English or librarians or teachers at your child’s school in need of extra cash.

If you have trouble from getting caught up in your story so that you can’t objectively examine your copy, then you’ll have to work through the manuscript backwards. This means you read the last page first and work your way through the manuscript to page one.

And if even that approach fails to detach you, then use a ruler and place it beneath a sentence while you read. One line at a time. That is indeed agonizing and slow, but do what’s necessary to deliver a smooth, clean story to your audience. The longer the manuscript, the less likely it will be absolutely perfect, but give it your best effort. Don’t your characters and plot deserve that?

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