Sunday, 16 August 2009

Proofreading: Some Thoughts

Because I'm gearing up to the submission of the PhD, I've been going through all the last minute things, including a few final rounds of proofreading. I've also had chance to do this in the preparation of novels, and to work with an editor in the pre-publication editing of Searching. As such, it seemed like a good opportunity to offer some tips on the process of proof-reading your work.

  1. Do it. Basic, obvious, but frequently ignored. Maybe people think that their work is perfect. Maybe they think that editors somehow have reserves of patience beyond those of ordinary mortals (which rather suggests they haven't been paying attention). Maybe they just can't be bothered. More likely, they've been correcting as they go, which doesn't work, because you're concentrating on content, not presentation. Putting together work is like the bit on those cookery shows where the chef has about a dozen pans on the go at once. Proofreading is more like the bit at the end where they go around wiping stray bits of sauce off plates.
  2. Do it again. One pass through is not enough. You will miss something. Everyone always misses something.
  3. Then get someone else to do it. If the work is remotely important, get someone else to look through at the end. This is different from the usual reading and suggestions, because the content is not their first concern (though if something major becomes obvious, be prepared to change it, on which, see below). They are looking specifically for spelling, grammar, layout, etc. Give them a red biro if you really want them to do an obsessively thorough job. Most people can't resist.
  4. Have a goal with each pass. Today, I was correcting my footnotes. I didn't even look at the body of the text. The bits you are correcting at this stage are the boring bits. If you allow yourself to look at the other bits of the piece, they will distract you from the parts you are supposed to be doing.
  5. Don't try to do it all at once. Making corrections takes longer than you think. You're correcting every mistake you made over what might have been months or years of writing. You're also correcting every mistake you put off as too time consuming. Guess what? You were right. I've had to split the corrections on my footnotes over two days, though to be fair, their were more than 750 of them to check and fit to my chosen style.
  6. Which is probably the most important point of the process. Be consistent. Pick what abbreviations you'll allow, and stick to it. Choose what you plan to do with thoughts, random asides, footnote conventions, and all the other little parts of layout. If the place you're aiming at has a house style, it should probably be in line with that.
  7. Now sit back, relax, and... hang on, there's something horribly wrong with chapter three. No, not there, about five paragraphs down. You'll have to re-write half the chapter. Only of course now you don't want to because you've done the proof reading. If you're on a tight deadline, you might have to leave it and hope that it's just your imagination, but more usually, the better response is to go ahead and fix it. The piece is not final until it's out of your hands, or even until it goes up to be published. I once put an article together for a magazine, checked it, sent it to the editor, who checked it, made some corrections, checked it again, sent it back, had it accepted as fine, and then found a spelling mistake on the galley proofs. But that was fine, because it meant we could correct it before it went to print.
  8. Above all, if you want to stay sane while you do it, remember that the purpose is to make the whole thing better. If you want to see it for yourself, keep a copy of the un-edited version, then compare it to what goes out. Even small changes will end up making it look far more professional.


Beth. said...

I used to work as a proof-reader in a completely different context to this completely.
It nearly killed me with its mind-numbing boring-ness...I mean there's only so many times you can read about the layout of different Sainsbury's locals right?

Proof-reading and editing mystery shopper reports

Don't do it :)

MG Higgins said...

Good advice! There are so many spots in my novels where I make notes to myself to fix it later. And then it's later, the novel is "finished" and I've still got a tone of writing to do!