Tuesday, June 3, 2014

What Authors Should Know: 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 lot.

Does it matter to anyone else? Absolutely.

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 errors.

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:

·         You 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.
·         Get 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.
·         Don’t proofread too soon. Do your drafting and revisions first, and don’t let worries about mechanics interfere with your creative process.
·         Even 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.
·         Professionally 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.
·         Would 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.
·         If 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.
·         If 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.