Reading your proof, and proofing your read.

“Proofread carefully to see if you any words out.”

Author Unknown

     AUTHOR’S NOTE:  This article is long and rambling.  Feel free to skip it, but you’ll miss a happy ending.  Well, it may not be happy for you, but…

     Paranoia is dedication to perfection.

     When you finish a work, be it a short story, a novel, a feature script, or even a blog post or article, there’s often an impatience that follows it, an urge to “get it out there” immediately.  For longer works, writers will usually sometimes have enough self-restraint to at least double-check their writing before submitting it to every contest, agency, production company, publisher and nearly-forgotten friend from college on their list.  But unfortunately, “double-checking” is usually not good enough.

     Let’s be clear, I’m not talking about rewriting, revising or any of that.  I’m talking about simple proofreading – in a not so simple manner.  In my [short] years, I’ve seen a lot of proofing errors.  In my own works, in the works of my family, the works of my friends, the works of random people on the internet, and even in full-length novels from top-notch authors and publishers.  I will say, the mistakes are much less common among that last group.  And that’s because “the best” are committed to rooting out those little typos, and the misplaced, misused, left-out or otherwise miscommunicative words in their books/screenplays.

     I’m not a drama-queen, so I’m not going to say that a single “there” where should be a “they’re” is the end of the world.  Nor will whoever is reading your work hurl it from their site sight (caught that on the second reading), simply because you added an apostrophe to the possessive “its” (as in “the bird hurt its beak when it fell”).  But such typos will be caught, and they will take someone out of the story, if only for a brief moment.  I’d say, by random guess, that at the very least, one out of 100 readers of your work will be distracted by any given proofing error.  If it’s a glaring error, at least 50 out of 100 (some people are simply oblivious).

     So what’s to be done?  (This post feels long.)  Personally, I’m a believer that it comes down to the artist to be absolutely certain, to the best of their ability, that their work does not contain error.  I was particularly inspired when I read in Terry Rossio’s (co-writer, Shrek, Pirates of the Caribbean, Aladdin) columns on writing – http://www.wordplayer.com – about how dedicated he was to ensuring that his script was picture-perfect.  Though speaking more to fudging page count to ensure that his script was read by story analysts and executives, Rossio writes:

     Perhaps all this seems a bit extreme. That these are extraordinary lengths to go to, just to perhaps gain a relatively minor advantage. And after all, if the studio is really interested in making the script, one of the steps they’ll do before budgeting it is to have it re-typed to their standard format. So the truth of a cheated page count will eventually out.
But there’s one final, greater point to be made out of all this. In retrospect, my dedication — or my obsession — toward getting the script to look exactly the way it should, no matter how long it took — that’s an example of the sort of focus one needs to make it in this industry. Any slight advantage is worth gaining. Nothing that might allow our scripts to be passed on is acceptable to ignore.
If a page break came at a bad spot, perhaps splitting the set-up and pay-off of a joke, I’d go in and edit out a line so the pay-off came without the reader having to turn the page. If, as I was mailing the script off, I noticed a word was misspelled or a dash got split, even if it was 2:00 A.M., I’d re-type the page.

     For myself, I reread shorter works (like this blog post) at least three times before “sending them out.”  Quite frequently, I’ll still miss something.  This is because the human mind works faster than the eyes.  The way we learn to read quickly is to assume.  If you ever listen to a child read aloud who has only recently learned to read, you’ll notice that they often start to read a word and wind up saying something completely different than what is actually on the page.  This is because they see the start of the word and their mind leaps to conclude what the word is.  This is also why people, even grown adults who read well, often have trouble reading aloud – because our eyes (and even our mouths) often correct ourselves in hindsight.  When reading silently, our mind subconsciously fills in the blanks and move on, while our eyes are a step behind, making sure that what we just assumed we saw is accurate to what was actually on the page.  When reading aloud, this becomes a problem in that this process is vocalized and often leads to us verbally making mistakes and correcting ourselves – which of course is incredibly embarrassing.

     The good news is that this means the readers will also likely bypass non-glaring typos and mistakes.  The bad news about the good news is that it leads writers to a sense of comfort and ease regarding said mistakes.

     To sum up, you should be entirely paranoid about your work on every level, including that of proofreading.  If you don’t have time to scan your novel page by tedious page and be certain that you’ve corrected all mistakes, then be certain you have the money to pay someone who can.  Be warned, though, that someone working to earn their pay is not nearly as dedicated as someone working to calm their fears.  Paranoia is dedication to perfection.  Utilize this as a writer and leave no opening for criticism.  Mistakes can be ignored and bypassed by everyone and their grandmother, and then at the last moment, when you’re close to absolute victory–

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One thought on “Reading your proof, and proofing your read.

  1. Expertly written and fun to read. I don’t think it was too long, but the disclaimer at the top was hilarious. ;)

    I’d like to add that if you apply this same level of dedication to casual correspondence – emails, forum posts, tweets – it makes a big difference on your image. So much of the casual communication we exchange in this age is riddled with minor errors. It makes quite a statement if your Facebook statuses don’t routinely have spelling errors! I think this is especially essential for writers. I mean, we want others to hire us for our writing ability – let’s inspire a little confidence!

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