It’s all in the proof – the most important part of writing

Last week Penguin sent me the proof-edited version of my next book. It’s going to be released later this year, more on that later. My job was going through the queries and implementing a few fixes picked up during that process.

It got me thinking about what proofing is generally, and how it works. To me it’s the most important part of writing, as much a part of the writing process as the writing itself, whether you are being professionally published or not, and it demands a particular skill set. To some extent it’s complementary – not all writers have it. Not all proof-editors can write.  But together they make a better book. A sharper book. A professional book.

Proofing also has to be done by somebody who isn’t the author. Why? Because authors are their own worst proofers. Familiarity breeds contempt, and stuff slips through – everything from typos to obfuscated meanings. The author knows what they mean. Does a reader? That’s where proof-editors come in.

There are actually two sorts of proofing:

1. Proofing for literals. Also known as ‘line editing’ – a hunt for actual typographical mistakes, misplaced punctuation, and so forth. This is true ‘proof reading’. Usually a book gets explicitly proofed for literals at least twice during the production process, though cost constraints can sometimes cause that process to get compressed. That’s not so good. Proofing is the one part of the publishing process that should not be short cut.

2. Proof-editing. Sometimes also called ‘copy editing’. This is less concerned with literals as with the nature of the content – the grammar, the consistencies, the readability. It is usually done to the raw manuscript received from the author, and is intended to make sure the book is consistent with publisher house-style, consistent with itself, that the sentences make sense and so on. It’s more structural/stylistic than bothered with dropped full stops.

The trick to it is lightness of touch – you have to preserve the voice of the author. Some proof-editors I’ve run into don’t – and I’ve run across a fair gamut. There was one, obviously a frustrated writer, who simply imposed his own style across mine, rewrote my book to suit himself, and added a lot of material. Killed what I was doing stone dead and destroyed my text. I rejected his work and told my publishers so. Another time I had a proof-editor who conisistently created new compounds, She was pretty expert in most things, but I think she misunderstood how hyphenations actually work.

Part of the reason why some proof-editors feel the need to intrude heavily is because manuscripts delivered to them often need it. Some authors, it seems, are happy to send in what amounts to rough text, knowing it will be fixed. And proof editors get into the habit of having to fix it – so they do the same even to manuscripts that don’t need it particularly.

Personally I make sure everything is as finished as possible, complete and worded exactly as I intend. Sure, it won’t be perfect – that familiarity breeds contempt thing – but it shouldn’t need too much intrusion. It’s part of what I regard as a professional approach. And the proof editor my publishers use – who I’ve known and worked with now for many years – is very, very good.

What are your own thoughts on proofing? I’d love to hear from you.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012

14 thoughts on “It’s all in the proof – the most important part of writing

  1. Great post, Matthew! That familiarity breeds contempt thing is indeed so true. I had my struggles writing my thesis before because at some point, I lost the objectivity. I was also hesitant to kill parts especially as I had worked hard on them getting there. The writing of long sentences was also a style that I had difficulties getting rid of.


  2. Hi Matthew, great post. In my business I write and I proof read. But I never do both on the same piece of work! I only ever proof read something that I haven’t written and I always take the time to understand the style and tone that the author was hoping for. With a background in copy writing and PR I really do understand the need to adopt other people’s style and stick to it rather than try and change it. Only when I’m writing for myself do I allow my own ‘voice’ to escape (a joy for me after so many years writing for others).


  3. It’s really frustrating when people impose their voice over your own – you understand it. I do too, I’ve got much the same background, including PR and professional work in publishing. The hardest part is trying to proof-edit material written ‘by committee’ in a corporate environment, which often has a very muddied voice or which unerringly plunges into all the standard grammar traps, purely because of the way it’s been debated by the management chain. Sigh. Thanks for dropping by.


  4. Great post! Like you, I make my own work as finished as possible before sending it to a publisher. I figure that no one is going to care about my work as much as I do. Enough errors can slip through with even the most careful of proofings that I could never bring myself to knowingly send out rough text!


    1. Thanks – what you say is absolutely good sense. Clean text = professionalism, and that really counts for writers. One of the big proofing problems I have, writing a lot of non-fiction, is when a well-meaning proof-editor (even the brilliant one who does my books now) makes an adjustment that changes the sense in a way that creates a factual error. Thanks for visiting.


      1. Ah, yes–I’ve had this problem, too, and worse. I write academic nonfiction (I’m a professor), and I once contributed to a volume for which the individual authors were not provided proofs–just the series editor. The proofreader wound up adding a parenthetical statement to my contribution, in which s/he stated that same-sex marriage in Massachusetts “had since been repealed” (which it has not).

        When I complained to the series editor upon seeing this in print, she said, “Oh, but the proofreader is very good!”

        This taught me that authors and anthology editors should always review a proofreaders’ changes with a fine-toothed comb, to avoid those well-intended, slight or not-so-slight changes that introduce factual errors. I’m amazed by what I’ve seen slip through. And I hope it’s a helpful cautionary tale for your readers, as well!


  5. And also a learning experience for the proof-editor – they’re human too. Some more than others, shall we say… It can take time for some to come to grips with an author’s mind. Thanks for dropping by!


  6. Hi Rebecca – thanks for the re-visit. I know what that’s like – I’ve had precisely that problem, to the point where I keep the original text on file, just in case. It’s a matter of professional integrity, to me, to own up to actual errors of mine. It’s due transparency, and that’s also how you learn things. But equally, if I haven’t made the mistake, it’s unjust that I then carry the can for somebody else’s error.

    My worst experience with editorial change was contributing to an online government publication, The material published bore only a passing resemblance to what I had submitted, and more than half the text was not actually mine. But any reader would reasonably credit me with it. I raised it with the managing editor, at which point the name of the mysterious ‘co-author’, who I had never met or was aware of, got added. This rather extraordinary performance didn’t meet my standards of due conduct and wasn’t of the calibre I would expect from public servants whose salaries are paid by my taxes. I am also still waiting for an explanation from them as to how other content published in 2009, which was apparently written by somebody else, used the headings, structure, some phrasing, much of the picture selection and the same argument as a chapter from an academic history book I wrote and received an award for in the 1990s.


  7. That’s true, but we still have to break writing down into its components in order to do it – and the proofing is what gives a professional edge to the finished work. To me it’s the most important part because a failure here undermines the perception of the rest of it – no matter how good the book is, people end up judging the work via superficial typographical errors or egregious wording mistakes instead of the content. And that counts in a competitive commercial environment. I’ll be covering the other elements later.


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