What you might not know about writers, editors and proofreaders

And there’s a lot.


  • A surprising number of us are unbearable. Truly. The dirtiest little secret about writers, in my view, is how many of us have some paralytic personality flaw that means we are best off away from polite society. Don’t lament that J.D. Salinger became reclusive; realize that he was probably doing humanity a good deed.
  • What motivates us to write varies from person to person, but one thing is consistent: at one point, we were all terrible, and great irritants to others. Some of us improved.
  • You’d be astonished how much writing is done while drunk. Ernest Hemingway wasn’t so anomalous. I am not convinced James Joyce ever wrote a sober line. Anthony Burgess wrote most of A Clockwork Orange, one of my favorites, through a haze of ethanol. I have sent off work that disturbed me so profoundly that I could not finish drafting it with a clear head.
  • Few of us make any money. That is for several reasons. 1) Most of us cannot market and hate marketing, considering it icky. 2) What many of us want to write is not what many people will pay to read. 3) A lot of us consider ourselves too good to take on the writing that really does pay. 4) In an increasingly less literate nation, we are not exactly in rising demand.
  • Writer’s block, which does not exist unless you author it and dignify it with the name, is not the main bugbear for writers, though it’s a handy excuse for not wanting to write and not desiring to admit that. The main bugbear is ego: the deep-seated fear that one will be exposed as a fake.
  • Pet peeve? People who love to catch me in a simple human error when I’m not in a professional writing situation. “Ha ha! You spelled that wrong!” So petty, so childish, and so lowers my opinion of someone.
  • Writers with no senses of humor about themselves and their foibles are beyond retrieval.


  • Editors come in many levels of competency. There are no certifications.
  • When you communicate with us in writing, most of us aren’t mentally correcting your grammar and spelling. People have to pay us to do that. If no one is paying, that means no one wants us doing that. Nothing is gained by doing it for free just to be an ass, or because we can. That’d just alienate people. Some damned smart people are ESL, or have disabilities, stuff like dyslexia, or various other reasons they aren’t great typists or grammarians.
  • Not every editor is right for every writer. For example, I am not a good editor for someone who can’t write and cannot face that reality when presented with tact. I just have to live with that.
  • Editors who take pleasure in hammering stakes into writers’ work are unprofessional and shortsighted. They exist. They are addicted to that self-absorbed jolly they get from a well-crafted misericord run up under the writer’s ribs. Most can’t make any money editing. We call those ‘Amazon reviewers.’ They are competent to point out flaws, but evidently incompetent to help authors remedy them.
  • Editing processes can vary a great deal from editor to editor and from project to project. For example, if on the initial evaluation, I am sent an outdated version of a ms, then an updated version, the value of my work is gutshot because once I begin reading for the first time and thinking, a new version will require me to doubt every ‘feel’ that I gained, for I cannot get a truly clean second set of first impressions. For others, that’s not a problem.
  • Before you snark that the author “obviously didn’t hire a competent editor,” consider this: you have no idea what the ms looked like before the editor got to work. You also have no idea how many edits were rejected by the author. It may have been so bad that the editor asked for Alan Smithee credits and didn’t get that courtesy.
  • Editors without senses of humor about themselves and their work cannot be saved. Take them behind the barn, and return without them.


  • We are born, not made. I know of no way to make someone care about precision and minutiae, nor to train them to do so.
  • Our processes vary, as do our competencies. My own is simple: I do it all twice at least. And if on the second pass I find anything of significance, I do it a third. A fourth and fifth, if need be. My credibility and value lie in missing nothing. For a good proofreader, a solitary mistake is unacceptable.
  • Proofreading may at times verge into light editing. The ability to handle that shift with minimal effort is a valuable thing.
  • As with editors, before you snark that the proofreader obviously did the job high on meth, bear in mind that publishers can blunder so monumentally as to publish unedited versions of a given ms. It happened to Allen Barra, a very capable author who could reasonably have expected better from a prominent publishing house. If the product is defective, the publisher is at fault. It was the publisher’s duty to assure that there were zero errors in the publication-ready ms.
  • To be a capable proofreader, you have to enjoy finding errors. To get paid to do it, you have to learn not to spike that particular ball in the end zone. You are in the business of telling people they did it wrong. No one is having fun when that happens, or if you are, no one will want to work with you. You need not apologize for doing your job well, but if you exult in all your catches, people will hate you.
  • Proofreaders who can’t face the fact that even they will miss mistakes are doomed. Do what I do: utter a sentence full of shocking blasphemies and gutter vulgarities, apologize and abase yourself, and move on. And don’t ever miss one again!

But you will.


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