Deb: Proofreading Matters

The person who points out to a business
owner that an apostrophe is misused on a sign? That’s me: former English
teacher, grammar geek. So it’s no surprise that proofreading matters to me. A

Does it matter to anyone else?

Most of us spent at least twelve years
in school with teachers who encouraged us to look closely at language in order
to understand how it works so we could use it properly. With some, these
lessons took greater hold than they did with others, but in a certain sense,
that hardly matters. The point is that our mere exposure to matters of punctuation,
grammar, and usage make us question anything that looks amiss, even if we
can’t quite articulate what’s wrong.

One of the largest complaints I hear
from readers of self-published books is the lack of attention to proofreading.
I worked with one author who had a particularly compelling story, a real-life
adventure that only he could tell. After opting to self-publish, he devoted his entire budget to offset
printing and relied on friends to proofread. The result is a professionally
bound book with a fine cover and a text that’s nearly unreadable because of the

Within the author services arm of the
rapidly expanding self-publishing industry, I’ve found some rather shocking
inattention to detail. Two examples:

“[Name of
company], book publishers, has established a legacy of providing authors
opportunities for expression, preserving histories and stories, and
bringing joy to readers and writers; and, doing so in an atmosphere of
mutual respect and integrity.”
What’s wrong here? The semicolon is used
incorrectly, and the last item in the series is not structurally parallel with
the others.
“[Name of author
services person] discovered his love for the written word in Elementary School,
where he started spending his afternoons sprawled across the living room floor
devouring one childrens’ novel after the other and writing short stories.”
Here there’s an
error in capitalization (“elementary school” is only capitalized when the
entire name of the school is given) and an apostrophe error.

I’d be leery of contracting with either
of these individuals for help with my books. Their business is language, yet
they don’t care enough to get it right in their promotional materials.

I hope you’re among the authors who
respect their readers enough to want to get it right. Here, some thoughts on
how to approach proofreading:

don’t have to be a grammar whiz in order to write a great book. I know
plenty of great writers who are rough around the edges when it comes to the
rules, but their work is brilliant. Know your limitations, learn what you can,
and hire out what you can’t do yourself.
a copy of the Chicago Manual of Style
and use it to look up what you don’t know. You may never understand all the
rules, but you’ll eventually get most of them.
proofread too soon. Do your drafting and revisions first, and don’t let worries
about mechanics interfere with your creative process.
when you’re a whiz at proofreading, you won’t catch everything. With work that’s
familiar (like the tenth draft of a novel), our minds tend to correct as we
read, so we literally don’t see errors. Enlist the help of beta readers to
catch errors you might otherwise miss—but don’t expect them to do the work of a
professional copy editor.
prepared manuscripts are proofed multiple times by multiple people, including
the author. Even then, a mistake or two may slip through. In the fourth edition
of one of my novels, I found a sentence about “insulted” instead of “insulated”
coveralls – this despite the fact that the book had gone through all the rigors of
copyediting and final proofing by professionals at one of the largest
publishing companies in the world.
you embark any other endeavor—quilting, painting, building birdhouses—without
learning to use the necessary tools? You may never achieve the expertise of a
professional proofreader, but you should still approach language with a healthy
curiosity and a desire to learn how it works. And learning the ropes with
grammar and punctuation isn’t as tough as you might think. Most of what I
learned about language came from a few months of tutoring a disabled veteran using
a programmed grammar text.
you’re shopping your manuscript in hopes of it being picked up by a traditional
publisher, make it as clean as you can before submitting. Though the publisher
has the resources tidy it up before it goes to print, first impressions matter,
and few agents and editors have the time or the inclination to read more than a
sentence or two of a submission that’s riddled with flaws.
you’re publishing on your own and you’re not a professional proofreader, you
should budget for one. The going rate for straight proofing is in the range of
$35 to $50 per hour, or $5 per page. As with developmental editors, ask for
references. Anyone can call herself a proofreader, and even some English
teachers fail to grasp the nuances of language and how it’s used. Ask what you’re
getting for the price. If it’s straight, simple proofing for mechanical errors,
your manuscript may still have deeper problems at the sentence level: mistakes
involving parallel structure, dangling modifiers, pronoun reference, and such. Line
edits will address those problems, which can be even more distressing to readers
than a misplaced comma or an apostrophe error. ,And never assume that an author services company does proofing; generally, their concern is only production, and in some cases, distribution.

2 thoughts on “Deb: Proofreading Matters”

  1. Deb, nice post. I think the process of writing a novel, in particular an SF novel, is one of the most complex of neurological tasks. I think that no one can do every step of the process well. Those good at worldbuilding are seldom good at proof reading.

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