Finding faults: the fine art of proofreading

My current effort is the final proofreading of a book soon to be published.  This sort of work is no joke, because final proofreading means just that:  the last set of eyes.  If I miss it, it gets printed, and every time I read it, I will have to live with the fact that I missed it.  All I expect is perfection, and I consider full perfection a reasonable expectation of myself, attainable or not.  In writing and editing, that’s elusive and imaginary, but in proofreading, it is simple:  you either saw it and noted it for correction, or you have failed.

I haven’t been given leave to say anything about the book itself, so I cannot do so here, though when it goes gold I will trumpet it, as I am proud to be associated with it on many levels.  Its author is a social historian whose work I admire (and am honored to be asked to nitpick); it covers a topic we mostly would rather not address, but should and must; best of all, it’s in sufficiently good shape it can be proofread.

That works this way.  A work may need heavy editing/rewriting, in which case it is frankly incomplete or incompetently written.  A number of people make good livings doing this, and honest livings, bringing to fruition the autobiography or musings of an otherwise interesting person who cannot write to professional standards.  Moderate to light editing will mean rather less of the above, and intellectual honesty compels my confession that my own ‘finished’ works could benefit from moderate editing.  You get so grooved into your habits that you fail to see where they bother the reader.  “But that’s my style” is a bad rejoinder.  If your style makes the reader unhappy, your style needs adjustment, because without the reader you are soliloquizing.

On the above two groupings, proofreading is not really feasible, as they will change too much.  You can only proofread something that is ready to go to print–before that, it’s wasted energy.  If it needs editing, it’s not ready for proofreading.  This book, with which I am helping, is fully ready for proofreading.  I’m on an Easter egg hunt for odd commas, misspelled names, very rare run-on sentences, mislaid accents on foreign names, loose spaces, italic and case issues, and anything else I encounter that I imagine the author does not want printed as is.

And goddamn it, I am going to find them all.  The layperson might imagine that the author would be shocked, appalled and dismayed that I do.  The professional understands that this is precisely what the author desires.  I change nothing; I merely call attention.  I have no investment in how the author and editors react to what I highlight, for their work is to act upon my work.  They’re capable, seasoned hands.  Once I have noted and pinpointed the issue, action is on them.  They may decide to ignore what I say.  They may tell me to not bother with a given type of issue going forward.  They may make changes.  And I don’t care.

How can I not care? That’s the easiest part, which is that I know my role.  My role is to spot and note, and occasionally to suggest, or explain my reasoning.  Nothing more.  Once one has read a manuscript enough times, and edited it enough times, it becomes the norm to one’s eyes.  Errors that have always been there are no longer seen.  You can’t proof your own stuff.  I am, with no false modesty, the best proofreader I have ever met, and I cannot proof my own stuff.  The value a final proofreader can bring is a combination of fresh eyes and zero emotional investment.  The author has worked on this book for five years, and gods only know how much time his editors have put in.  Quite a bit, to go by the state of the finished product, which has me looking for the fussiest and minutest details.  I can suggest how they might handle an issue, but they know what they meant it to say (or look like).  Once I call it to their attention, it will be handled as they see fit.  I did what was asked of me, and avoided meddling in what was not asked.

It’s not that I don’t care about the end result.  I care about it almost savagely.  I care enough about it that if you send me a chapter in which I think I didn’t find enough problems, I’ll suspect that I lost focus, and do it all over again until I am satisfied I have found all that exists.  If I find nothing, I will do it again.  If I go through it thrice and find zero, then I finally believe my work is done.  Believe you me, I care.  I just know where my job begins and ends, and trust my teammates to take the handoff and hit the hole for paydirt.


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