All thru the year weve wated
Waytd throu spring and falll
Two hear silvre bels ringing see march bringinging
The happyest seeson of awl…
Yes, it’s National Proofreading Day, the day when we reflect on the importance of proper spelling and grammar and those unsung heroes who are the last line of defense: the proofreaders.
The home page for the celebration will give you any number of reasons why it’s important to read your work or have it read—for example, you might think you’re a person of great importance, but your typo may render you a person of great impotence. Spellcheck will not help you then.
Proofreading, like copyediting, used to have more respect in the publishing world because mistakes make publishers look sloppy and stupid. In the Internet era almost everyone online IS sloppy and stupid, however, so looking intelligent has less value. Plus, as they always say, content is king but it doesn’t pay the bills; publishers of all kinds get much less return on each word published than they used to. To feed the beast it behooves them to generate copy as cheaply as possible. Proofreading is one of the first things to go.
If the people who make their living on words don’t much care anymore, you can imagine how much other industries think about proofreading, even though all of them need to communicate. Hey, if everyone is a moron, then no one looks moronic! seems to be the rallying cry of our time.
Proofreaders are, as I say, the last line of defense, usually the last people to see copy before it gets published. What do they do? The proofreader must carefully read each word, seeing that it is spelled properly; they must make certain each sentence follows accepted rules of grammar; they must check previous versions of the copy to see that all corrections were properly made; they must see to it that proper style followed for whatever the assignment requires, be it footnotes on academic work, page numbers on indexes, running heads on book pages, or even musical notation. The proofreader must be hyperfocused on the page. It’s hard to find people like that in our modern ADD world.
Proofreading differs from editing and copyediting in a number of ways. Basically, here’s the breakdown of duties in a book publishing house:
Writer: Poor slob crunching through pages slowly, wondering why he chose a career that pays peanuts or less up front, noticing that there are fewer famous authors than there are famous architects and maybe Mom was right and he should have gone to engineering school; then looks in newspaper and sees that a guy who spent thirty years as a civil engineer has written a murder mystery about a civil engineer who solves crimes in his spare time and it has shot to the top of the best-seller list; writer wonders how he can kill himself and make it look like this son-of-a-bitch engineer-turned-author killed him.
Editor: Acquires manuscripts; lunches with agents; glances at story and tells writer what a great book it is; then tells writer to change the plot, characters, names, setting, audience, and title, to rework huge sections of the story, and by the way, instead of a historical mystery about pyramid engineers who solve murders, could you make it something more contemporary and like 50 Shades of Grey? Then goes home and watches HBO and wishes she were like one of those editors on TV who live in nice apartments and never seem to worry about money.
Copy editor: Main duties include reading carefully for spelling and grammar but also for sense—to track the plot, mind the time and sequence of events, and fact-check as necessary (“Since the book takes place in London, why are all the characters in this book Egyptian? QUERY”). Watch as editor STETs everything and says the author is already crying every time they talk. Other duties include: Bitching about authors and editors.
Proofreader: Can’t make the book other than a piece of whale crap, but must see to it that it is a neat, polished, professional piece of whale crap.
As you can guess, there is a certain amount of tension between these jobs. When feeling good they call it “creative tension,” but this is infrequent. Also a lie.
Most of my experience in-house has been copyediting, and I’ve copyedited more books than I’ve written by orders of magnitude. We like to tell editors and authors that we’re not trying to make them feel stupid! No, we’re trying to make them look smart! But they never appreciate it.
Anyway, we salute the proofreaders on this day, who as you can guess are the only grown-ups in the bunch. Thanks, proofreaders! Enjoy your day! I hear they may be extending unemployment benefits again.