Thursday, May 31, 2012

Proofreading: Checking Your Trail for Roots and Other Obstructions

After covering the types of editingline editing, copyediting—we get to the stage that's generally under-appreciated (and often overworked and underpaid, but we'll get to that): proofreading.

In our analogy of your story (or other piece of writing) as a nature trail, proofreading is the final check, making sure there aren't any roots obstructing the trail, that everything's clean and smooth and what it should be. The "oops" check.

Proofreading is not an edit.

Proofreading is the final check for errors.

It's fairly common, these days, for people to combine proofreading and copyediting and require employees to do both jobs at the same time…which pretty much defeats the point of proofreading.

Some editors even call their copyediting services "proofreading", either out of their own confusion (because their companies told them they were proofreaders due to proofreaders' lower pay) or out of their clients' confusion (because their clients misunderstand what proofreading and copyediting are, so why bother to educate them on the appropriate jargon?)

Let's back up and define our terms:

Line Editing
makes sure your text flows properly and is grammatically correct (for your writing style).
makes sure your text says what you meant it to say and that its grammar and spelling matches the appropriate house style†
is the "Oops" check for grammar (and, traditionally, formatting) to make sure they match the house style†

For further explanation of why I need these definitions and what "house style" is, see this post.

Look at the name of the step we're talking about: proof reading. It stems from publishing; before something goes to the printing press, a page proof is printed, a mock-up of what it'll look like. The proof reader is a final set of eyes that checks that all is correct by reading the proof.

Meaning the proofreader should be someone who hasn't been involved on other steps in the process, because the proofreader needs to see what's actually on the page rather than what the person thinks is there.

By the time you're on the page proof, everything should be done. The only things being caught should be accidents, like a typo or a margin issue, not outright problems.

But again, proofreaders are often expected to act as copyeditors, finding and fixing outright problems often for half (or less!) of the pay. Some small presses don't even pay, saying that the proofreaders are getting "paid" by reading a free book.

The assumption is that proofreading doesn't take all that long—and in the old-style "oops" check on page proofs, that could be true, because companies often had deadlines and workloads that meant the ones who survived on the job were the fast(er) ones. But…

Proofreading takes longer than reading.

My guess is that proofreading takes at minimum twice as long as reading—not including the time it takes to mark up errors—but my view is skewed: I'm faster than average. I once worked with several hybrid-style copyeditor-proofreaders for a company, all of them with more relevant experience than 20-year-old me had at the time, and they were startled by the quantity I got done. (And Quality Control liked me, so I know I had quality, too.)

If a proofreader just has to worry about the personalization, the formatting, and the order code line—the rest of the piece being canned items—then proofreading is a breeze.

("Canned" means pre-written articles that a company might reuse with permission for multiple clients. They're proofread when written, and the proofreader gets used to how they're supposed to look so she can glance at them to check "Was anything cut off or is a hyphenation wrong?")

But if a proofreader has to carefully verify every paragraph for proper formatting, every sentence for proper punctuation, every word for proper spelling—and then notice the surrounding document's formatting, spacing, and font face to boot—that takes even longer.

(Have I mentioned my old hobby of identifying font faces and font sizes at a glance? There was a reason for it. I'm out of practice, but I'm pretty sure I'm looking at some Helvetica on an envelope on my desk—in bold allcaps, probably size 14 or 16. It's commercially used for the "Important info inside" notice, so I know it's one of the major sans-serif variable-width fonts. It's not Verdana or Impact, and *checks word processor* it isn't Arial—the G is wrong. Per my word processor, Helvetica does look just like it, though it might be size 18; I'd have to print a test page to be sure.)

Anyway, this is a fast proofreader talking, who thinks it takes twice as long to proofread something as it does to read it, not including the time it takes to mark up errors.

Add in copyediting, and the job takes even longer.

Take a 3,000-word short story. That'll take anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour to proofread, and anywhere from an hour to three to edit. (Though if it's going to take much longer than an hour to edit, I think the writer needs a tutor, not an editor.)

In my experience, it's actually faster to mark up errors on paper. But marking errors in a computer file is more convenient for the integration of those corrections into the final product.

As a result, proofreaders have more responsibility, in a way that makes their job take longer, and don't have that reflected in their pay.

So. Let's back up again.

If a proofreader has to see what's actually on the page rather than what she thinks is there, it must be impossible to proofread your own work, right?


Not necessarily.

It is possible to adequately proofread your own work. (Freelance writers often have to do it.) Not everyone is capable of it. And not everyone who is capable of it wants to take the time and effort to do so, because it's always more difficult to proofread your own work than someone else's.

It is possible to trick yourself into seeing the technicalities of what's actually on the page rather than what you think is there.

But then you have to know what it's supposed to look like, to know when it's wrong. *wink*

We'll jump into techniques for tricking yourself—and, maybe, a checklist of what you'll be wanting to evaluate—on another day.

What do you think of proofreading? Would you prefer to (learn how to?) proofread your own work or prefer hiring someone else to do it?


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