The state of the proofreading

Just when I thought it was at a nadir, it goes lower.

Much of what most people think of as editing is in fact proofreading. Proofreading checks for errors. It does not take very much extra effort for proofreading to become copy editing, but the latter has a greater purview.

My advice to clients is always to engage a proofreader, and that it cannot be me, even though proofreading is a special talent of mine. Then why won’t I do it? Because, in order to proofread to my own standards, I have to be seeing the ms for the first and only time. I refuse to take money to work to anything less than my best standards. Also, it’s much better for them to have a second set of eyes. Different eyes see different things.

If you want to see someone really, seriously, heavily piss me off, have them inveigle me into voluntarily proofreading their work for free “as a friend,” after which they make a blithe jaunt through the ms giving it a full rewrite and thus destroying all the value I gave away for free.

Anyone who has read a lot of self-published work has noticed that most writers don’t hire proofreaders. (Many don’t hire editors, either. Or they do, but ignore most of the guidance. Or they hire inept editors and accept the misguidance. But all that is another story.) The result is a poisoning of the self-pub well in the eyes of those who aren’t patient with errors that should have been caught before publication.

Happily for many self-pub authors, most readers don’t know that those are errors, thus they don’t care. The authors lose only the very literate minority, and if someone pays $5.99 for your Kindle edition, you don’t see whether that $5.99 came from a Ph.D in Comparative Literature or a Harlequin romance fanatic. Those two $5.99s have the same purchasing power.

So; proofreading either doesn’t get done, or gets done by their sister-in-law. She reads a lot of John Grisham, you know, so surely she can handle it.

Yeah.

What I never thought I’d see: a self-advertising, paid “proofreader” who simply ran grammar check and spellcheck. #congratsuproofed Now I have.

I’ll bet you have never stopped to wonder what would happen if people just proofread by running grammar check and spellcheck. Have you? What, you don’t spend your fun time ruminating on literary outcomes?

Oh. Okay. Point taken. But since you haven’t, let me explain what this would do. It would:

  • Introduce a number of mindless corrections to situations where the author knew the rule and chose that special moment to break it for valid reasons of flow, dramatic effect, whatever.
  • Destroy dialogue for characters that did not use perfect speech. Rules for dialogue and internal monologue differ from rules for narrative.
  • Enforce slavish obedience to conventions that might make no sense in context. The Comma Formerly Known As Oxford? Introduced or eradicated with mindless efficiency, depending on one’s conventions, without heed to the meaning it could inflect.
  • Miss a great many of the most pernicious typos, such as ‘thought’ for ‘though.’ So hard to catch, so common, so irritating. So expected to be caught in proofreading. So unpardonable a miss that a proofreader who misses them is not a proofreader.

Not only would it trash the ms, it would be a creative trashing job. While missing much of what one wishes a proofreader to catch, it would damage what one expects her not to damage.

Now I’ve seen it happen.

I got so pissed off that I volunteered to proofread the whole thing, free of charge–with the natural caveat that it would not be to my normal standards, and on a best-efforts basis. My client’s trust had been abused, infuriating me. I hate this, and it’s not the first time. I had one client who needed help with formatting and cover art. I sent her to someone who came fabulously recommended. That provider accepted the job, more or less blew my client off for months, then farmed it out to someone else who proved horribly inept. Infuriating, and more so in this case because it meant I led my client to a bad outcome. I will never regain respect for the provider who did that, but I know part of the problem was that I gave a secondhand referral to someone who had nothing to lose by alienating me. I’m embarrassed, still (years later), because I know that I screwed up. And since I’m hopeless at formatting and cover art, it was not in my power to take that bullet for my client.

Unlike some past cases, this client didn’t then launch into a full rewrite of the proofread ms. It was published with the corrections, a product we could be proud of. So at least we had that.

Nowadays I pass along names, but no recommendations, unless I know that the provider values my respect so highly that s/he wouldn’t dare blow things up. Definitely no more recommendations based on “another client used him/her and was happy.” Yeah, been there, and the trip sucked.

If you’re hiring a proofreader, insist on some evidence that s/he knows what s/he is doing. A bunch of glowing reviews on some editor/proofer search site does not constitute “evidence that s/he knows what s/he is doing.” I suggest asking for a sample proofing of a random few pages.

Anyone who refuses to do that, I think one may safely dismiss.

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