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