Tag Archives: proofreading

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.


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.



One need not read much online, or drive around much, or read many ads, to see how much opportunity there is for volunteer proofreading.

No one will pay to have small proofreading jobs done. Nothing for it but to get used to that reality. In a smart world, every restaurant would have a proofreader on call. His or her job would be to review their ads, new menus, and so on. In the case of immigrant restaurants, especially so. But we don’t live in a smart world, and in many cases the immigrants write better English than the native speakers anyway.

What it means is that volunteer proofreaders have a chance to make a difference. The number one trait for a proofreader is fascist attention to detail, where the proofreader is so eager to find mistakes that if s/he finds none, s/he will assume that s/he missed a bunch, was phoning it in, and must do it all over once more.

As an editor, I always tell my clients that they still need to have my work proofread. I mention that I will contrive my very best to make that proofreader’s job miserable (defined as finding too few errors to fix), but that it still needs doing, and that I can’t take money to do it. To proofread well, I must see the material for the very first time when I sit down to proof it.

The first recipient of my volunteer proofreading services is a fan site for my alma mater’s sports teams. That was an easy one. We all love UW; we all want to see the school and its teams portrayed in the best way. The reporters who cover the sports are volunteers one and all, hard workers who arrive with a love of the school and a given sport, donating their time so that the rest of us can stay connected when the hometown newspaper has lost relevance. We are all on the same side. They sometimes need my help to bring their writing nearer to the standard I expect from those who did time on Montlake. It was stupid to keep rolling my eyes when I had the opportunity to take a hand, and help out my fellow Dawgs.

This may be the way the pro bono aspect of my work goes, moving forward. I would like that.

While we are here, I want to wish all of the ‘Lancer’s faithful followers a Happy New Year. May you all prosper, kick bad habits, begin positive new ones, and avoid traffic tickets.

Why it costs what it costs

My line of work involves a lot of sticker shock. I’m sometimes the recipient, as in: I look into a situation, discover that it would require me to work for about $1.75 per hour, and realize that there are people desperate enough to accept that and people ready to exploit that desperation. Other times, I’m the shocker rather than the shockee.

I don’t make public my pricing methodology, but it’s based on the amount of time and effort required to do the job right. That, in turn, is affected most by the size of the job and the depth of attention necessary. Length is always the biggest factor: if someone wants a critical read with suggestions, and the ms is 400 pages long, well, that’s a lot of work. It’s a lot more involved than a 120-page short novel, and will require much more mental juggling to keep track of everything. (That critical read would also be included in an editing job, if that were wanted, as part and parcel. But one must do as one was engaged to do.)

Proofreading is least expensive, because my brain really is not on the storyline, but on catching errors. The author failed to deliver adequate character development? Not my purview. Author made a grammatical error? Fix it and move on. Story is insipid? Not what I was hired to address. Big ton of loose spaces? Fix them. I go over the entire thing at least twice, but that’s simply because I am better at this than other people.

Editing is more expensive, and more variable, because it depends upon what shape the writing is in. Good writing costs less because it may have sentences that can stand without my intervention. Bad writing costs more because I have to make it into good writing. Editing also depends upon length, of course, and on intricacy and complexity. No two are alike, and different mss require different treatments. A one-method-fits-all approach would not help to transform the ms into the best book it can be.

This can mean that I send a ms back to the author with strong suggestions and observations, and suggest some reworking before we get into editing. What I am really saying there is: “This has some flaws I consider lethal. If I fix them for you, in the first place, it will be very expensive. In the second, it will be me supplying the creativity, because a rewrite has no boundaries. I think it’s better if the creativity and flow of ideas are yours; it’s your book. Consult me any time as you go, but I hope you’ll rework this.” If the author can’t or won’t do that, and still wants me to edit it, that’s a problem because I’m not comfortable sending out a fatally flawed book. That means…

…rewriting. I undertake this with great reluctance, but if someone insists and accepts the greatly inflated cost, I may decide to take it. Rewriting happens when either the writing or the story have such severe flaws that plain editing won’t suffice. It’s also rare, because in my experience the worse the writing, the more certain is the author of that writing’s perfection and brilliance. Distilled to the result, the combination of sticker shock and the notion of complete change of even the basic style (which can have no other meaning but “this isn’t good at all”) usually end up sparing me rewriting jobs. And that’s fine, because they are arduous. I would so much rather offer feedback and guidance so that I can simply edit a much-improved ms.

Composition or ghostwriting is the next level up. This happens when I don’t have a ms to work with, just notes or guidelines. Creating that ms is my task. I have done a great deal of it as a contributing author, and I like it well enough, but it’s even more work to do well, and costs even more. It can entail travel, interviewing, purchasing of books, library trips, transcription, and every other manner of research available to me.

Thus, if you’re hoping to keep the price within reason, keep the length within reason. Big book = big project.

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.

How a crazy busy ‘lancing day looks

Freelancing is like Starfleet at times. Weeks of boredom and maintenance, a day or so of holycrapIhaveatonofstufftodo. Today was one of those days, so let’s walk you through it.

Morning. Finish second and final editing pass on true-life romance manuscript. What? If people hire me to edit their work, it usually gets edited at least twice? Am I that inefficient? No, that’s not the issue. On the first pass, I fix everything that’s obvious, but about halfway through I have spotted some trends, and realize that in the early going, unaddressed instances of those trends exist. I must normalize these so that the overall editing is consistent. In the ideal world, I would make the book sound like the author, only smoother. With good writing, one can do that. When it’s not so good, if it sounded like the author, well, they don’t pay me to maintain mediocrity. This one was pretty good even before I got my inky paws on it. Finish around 2 PM. Refuse to send it off. Want one more quick whirlwind read before I sign off on it as completed work. I hate making any mistakes.

During morning, receive inquiry from fiction author about rates and editing. Exchange e-mails. We agree that author will send me ms, I’ll look it over, I’ll sample edit a few pages and send it back along with a quote. This one will be somewhere between editing and rewriting, so there may be sticker shock, but if you want a great book that’s what it’ll cost. Receive and begin sample edit. I can’t tell what a ms really needs until I sit down and actually edit some of it.

Early afternoon, hear from author of true-life romance ms, who is about as calm and patient waiting for me to send him the finished work as he probably was when his children’s mother was eased onto the obstetric bed to have his first daughter. He is stuck on his blurb, which is his least favorite aspect of readying a book, and randomly mentions that if only someone would just take $x and do it, he’d be happy. With calm irony, I mention how unfortunate it is that he doesn’t happen to know anyone who writes for money. My author is not a fool. I advise him, however, that his price is outrageously high and that I won’t do it for more than $.6x. He complains that it’s well worth $x to him, and wants to pay that. I remain impassive and unmoving; $.6x, not a penny more. Unfortunately, I have no leverage, as in the end I can’t prevent him from writing a check that overpays me, so if that happens, I’ll just have to smile and thank him. However, he still only owes me $.6x for it. Let’s not forget that. In the process I learn that his wife–whose story he is writing as told to him–is enchanted at the many new words I have coined from her name. Encouraged, I start to lean into that and make a real effort to coin them just for fun. I like her story, and I respect the candor of her narrative.

Real life intervenes: wife has just come from home inspection for our soon-to-be own private Idaho. Problems are relatively minor, but here’s a chance to extract from the seller a little of her own overly hard bargaining. Drop everything, attend to review, discussion, and authoring of letter to real estate agent presenting a suggested offer regarding home’s flaws. Make wifely corrections. Day is crazy. Miss Big Brother premiere. “Sorry, dear, buying your dream home is less important than watching a really trashy reality show,” said no happy husband ever. Will watch later online. Someday.

Make grocery run. Welcome break. Buy the usual unhealthy stuff, though at least I’m eating less of it lately.

Whirlwind final review of romance ms, then birth the baby and hand it to author. Pretty sure author drops everything else in his world, except the woman about whom the story tells, to examine ms. I hear nothing back, so he’s probably happy. He’s probably still awake reading it as I write this, after midnight.

Not even close to done for day. Finish sample edit on fiction ms, so as to have eyes-off time to review tomorrow for presentation to author.  Reckon I’m on the right track.

Time for physical therapy. Having discovered that during 2/3 of the exercises I can read a book or magazine, I get in some reading on a travel bio sent me for review by a pleasant Australian DJ. When I’m sent a review copy, my rule is that it’s automatically at the top of the stack until I finish it and post a review. To me, that’s just simple fairness and gratitude to the author. Just about finish it as I am doing resisted hamstring curls–it’s not a thick book, in fact not as thick as I wish it were. By now it’s 11:30 PM, and in some form, I have been at work for twelve hours.

Still not done. A blog entry is way overdue. Regular readers don’t know I was in Idaho for three days with a 4.5 hour drive each way, and unless they’re personal friends, may not be moved by that. They just know nothing’s happening here. This cannot be tolerated, and I am somewhat understandably a bit tired, so I pull up WordPress and begin a blog entry. About what? Remember, there is no writer’s block. You want to write or you don’t. Obviously I want to write at this time, because I refuse not to write. Then decide that a busy literary day might be interesting to concierges, engineers, nurses, electricians, homemakers, lawyers, game wardens, activists, campground managers, cashiers, and all the other folk who take time to read what I write. I put on some rap and get to work.

At half past midnight, my workday is done. Productive day. If this was my every day, I’d have a lot less spare time, but I’d deal.

Good morning, dear reader.

Calling in sick

First, I offer you this to make this post less of a downer: “Callin’ in Sick Today”

When you are a ‘lancer, can you really call in sick? Depends how bad it is. If you are so sick and weak you lack the mental acuity to do your work in respectable form, well, you have no choice. I was in that state Monday, with a fever probably about 104º F. For you of metric countries, much above that and you have to be hospitalized. There was no way I could work. Sitting up was hard enough.

I could postpone stuff like this, for example. While I’m heartened that people read the blog, I don’t think anyone’s going to unsubscribe if there aren’t any posts for a week. I would have to postpone or cancel on-site stuff, such as a meeting or teleconference. But some of what you have to do, if you can do–even if you have to proofread for an hour, rest for an hour, proof for another hour, etc.–you must do. And for Tuesday and Wednesday, that was what I did. Could barely even eat, nothing sounded good. Lived on mixed OJ and club soda, and cleaned out all the popsicles Deb didn’t eat.

But it got done. And that’s the big deal. If you have a long rapport with a client, proven track record, maybe it doesn’t harm you to have a crisis that delays the result. But when the project is a biography of a nonagenarian who is understandably eager to see the final product, for a first time client, well, the amount of delay one might accept is very limited.

And since you’re a ‘lancer, you do it until it’s done. Your career depends on that approach. When work is there, do the work. You can play Candy Crush or nap some other time.

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.