The Proof is in the Reading
If I do my job properly, I am invisible.
Very few of us finish reading a novel and say, “That book was beautifully proofread.” And who would want to? A story should transport us, take us out of our everyday lives, excite or move us in some way. We don’t want the misspelling of a character’s name or a missing full stop to jolt us out of the story. OK, maybe that can be forgiven when we’re being swept along by an entertaining tale, but repeated typos and inconsistencies can undermine our trust in the author’s ability to spin a good yarn.
When I’m proofreading, I’m always thinking about the link between the author’s words and the reader’s mind. I like to believe that I play a tiny part in ensuring that the story travels cleanly from one to the other. I often find myself asking two questions: “What is this author trying to say?” and “Will the reader understand it?” Using these questions as my focus I spend hours choosing when to intervene and when to step away. It often feels like I’m walking a tightrope.
I’d like to demonstrate some elements of this high-wire act, and share with you the types of decisions I make when I’m proofreading fiction. This post inevitably touches on the differences between proofreading and editing, and I’ll say categorically, up-front, no doubt about it, I’m in the troupe that firmly pitches its circus tent in a fuzzy grey area. However, as a general rule, when proofreading I tend to only correct proofreading errors and make suggestions or ask questions about editing issues.
So, let’s get down to details with one example of a descriptive passage and a couple of examples of dialogue.
Dirk has escaped from his kidnappers and the author is describing how he’s now lost in the desert:
The son beat down like a demon, dragging his very soul from his aching limbs. Dirk couldn’t take any more of this dessert. It filled him with a stomach-churning dread. He could be stuck hear for ever in these dessert sands that stretched for ever. The harsh, cruel, unrelenting terrain played tricks on his tired mind and his weak body.
Having corrected “son” to “sun” and “dessert” to “desert” and “hear” to “here”, there really isn’t anything else I should go ahead and amend as a proofreader. I would probably add a note to suggest avoiding the repetition of “for ever”, but however much I might want to cut down on the number of adjectives describing the terrain or think that the word “battered” would work heaps better than “weak”, I have to rein myself in because it’s not my job to put my stamp on an author’s work.
Let’s move forward to the moment Dirk is being helicoptered out from the “harsh, cruel, unrelenting terrain” of the desert. The dialogue runs:
“How long have you been out there?” The medic enquired.
“Dunno,” said Dirk, “L-lost track of t-time,” he coughed.
“Take a sip of this,” the medic offered a bottle of water.
I’d make the following corrections:
Line 1: Change “The medic” to “the medic”.
Line 2: Alter the comma to a full stop after “Dirk”.
Line 3: Amend the comma to a full stop after “this” and “the medic” to “The medic”.
Basically I’m ensuring that speech tags and action tags are punctuated correctly. I have a dilemma deciding what to do with the second line. Strictly speaking “he coughed” is action rather than speech and so the comma after “time” should be a full stop and the “h” of “he” should be amended to upper case. However, the hyphens suggest to me that Dirk is coughing as he’s speaking (probably he’s suffering from all the sand that got down his throat after an undisclosed number of days in the desert), so I’d probably leave this, even though the grammar police are probably beating a path to my door as I type.
Dialogue can be an excellent way to efficiently drive a story forward, but often when a book has been through a few drafts I’ve found some authors have lost track, and included details in both the dialogue and the narrative, which results in unnecessary repetition. We now find Dirk being interviewed by the police after his kidnap ordeal. He’s been asked to provide a description of the kidnapper whose afternoon nap allowed him to escape:
“Tall guy, six-two or six-three maybe, well-built, massive shoulders, like a rugby player, black hair, longish, clean-shaven, broken nose.”
“What about accent? Anything unusual about his voice?” asked the policeman.
“English, probably London. Deep voice,” replied Dirk, remembering how the kidnapper tried to intimidate him with his height, his deep voice and rugby-playing physique, but that he whimpered like a baby in his sleep.
Here I would guess that the author initially put the detail in the speech, then in a later draft decided to do this via Dirk’s memory, but forgot to remove the detail from the description. It’s not a proofreading error, but I’d query whether the repetition was on purpose or not.
Which leads me on to another question I often ask: “Has the author done this on purpose or not?” The most exciting writing breaks the rules, and I need to be alert to the occasions when an author breaks the rules on purpose. A very simple example of this is when an author drops in short phrases rather than full sentences to inject pace and drama. It’s usually pretty clear that the author knows perfectly well how to write a conventional sentence, but has chosen a few choppy phrases to create an effect.
I don’t sit there wielding my red pen correcting novels as if I’m a teacher (although I was a teacher long, long ago), nor is it my job to criticise an author’s work or to show off. I’m fully aware that the author of Dirk’s adventure knows how to spell “sun”, “desert” and “here”. They are typos, not a reflection of the author’s intelligence or ability to write. I don’t approach my job in a judgemental way.
I do need to tune in and judge how formal or informal the author’s style is and in turn respect the author’s voice. So if an author regularly uses the comma splice or doesn’t punctuate “that” and “which” in the way that I was taught at school, as long as the meaning is clear I won’t change the text. And as long as the use of commas works for a sentence I won’t get bogged down in gradable, qualitative, classifying or coordinate adjectives. Essentially, if the author is getting the message across I try my hardest not to interfere.
A little aside, in case you are interested in the comma splice and the punctuation of “that” and “which”. Here’s a basic outline:
- The comma splice, also known as the run-on sentence, occurs when you use a comma to join two unrelated main clauses. For example, “I enjoy proofreading novels, I spend all day playing with words.” Strictly speaking the comma should be replaced by a semicolon or colon, or the two clauses linked by a conjunction. I have to admit to a guilty fondness for the rhythm of comma splices.
- “That” is used without a preceding comma to introduce text that is integral to the sentence, whereas “which” is preceded by a comma when the text is not integral to the sentence, which makes sense really.
If you’re interested in reading more about those gradable, qualitative, classifying and coordinate adjectives I suggest you set aside an hour, pour yourself a strong cup of tea or a stiff drink and read section 4.3.4 of The Oxford Style Manual (UK) and 6.33 of The Chicago Manual of Style (US).
There are rules, and many of them are there to help the author’s words convey his or her intended meaning, but equally many of those rules are made to be broken if the author knows what he or she is doing. A huge part of my job is to judge when to impose those rules and when to keep shtum.
Having raised my head above the parapet with this post, I’m now going to wrap myself in my invisibility cloak and return to working on other people’s words.
Wendy Janes is a successful freelance proofreader for a range of large and small publishers and has been for over a decade. She has a Bachelor of Education degree from Goldsmiths College (London University) and a Chapterhouse qualification in proofreading and copy editing. Her own work can be found in two anthologies; A Kind of Mad Courage and Romantic Heroes , the non-fiction memoir of her grandfather The One and Sixpenny Englishman, and her full length literary fiction novel What Jennifer Knows. For her services, go to her site http://wendyproof.co.uk/testimonials/ and make certain to connect with her on Twitter,
@wendyproof. (She in no way proofread this bio.)
I want to thank Ms. Janes for giving us an inside look into the world of a proofreader. I must say I like her method, and the length of times she takes. Give me a person that says they will turn around a book in a couple or three days, and I will give you someone I worry about.~Ronovan
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