Quick tricks for better proof-editing

Today I’m going to tell you about proof-editing, which is when an editor goes through an author’s work looking for large-scale stuff – style, voice, consistencies and structure.

Not so much a pier as a pi!
Not so much a pier as a pi! Why is it in a post about writing? Because I can.

One of the best lessons I ever had in proof-editing was also the quickest. Let the writer’s own voice through. And don’t suppose that you know better than the author does about how to write.

It’s a lesson that even some of the professional proof-editors I’ve worked with sometimes don’t apply – the worst example I ever had was with one of my old Random House books, years ago, which was sent off to a proof-editor who also wrote books himself.  He hadn’t realised that there is more than one ‘right’ way to write (as it were), with the result that his method of proof-editing involved re-writing the material into a style, voice and structure he would have applied himself.

My role as author, from that point onwards, involved undoing all the vandalism he had done to my material – something that is quite difficult the further a book gets into the publishing process.

So what constitutes that voice? Some writers have quirky ways of expressing themselves – sometimes even ways that, strictly speaking, are grammatically wrong even. It’s OK to leave some of them in.

It’s also OK to leave in occasional bursts of passive language. Sometimes passive voice is a valid way of extending the narrative, although too much of it drags and becomes boring. (That’s actually true of all writing).

It’s also OK to leave in places where the writer ‘tells not shows’ – not least because ‘telling’ is a valid way of describing certain parts of a story. Not all parts, of course: the trick is to know which is which.  The rule with which beginning writers get hammered, ‘show don’t tell’, is actually misleading because it’s often taken as an excuse to iron out every last vestige of ‘telling’.

My suggestion is ‘show’ emotions, ‘tell’ narrative. And ‘emotion’ includes how the character reacts to that narrative and to what they see around them.

I’m not the first one to think that. Hemingway did it first.

Inevitably there is quite a bit more to proof-editing than this – like all aspects of writing and editing, it’s a learned skill that gets better with practise, and proof-editors never stop learning.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016


3 thoughts on “Quick tricks for better proof-editing

  1. I’ve known two proof readers.
    One highlighted things he thought were missing as well some grammatical issues, none of their feedback interfered with the story.
    The other read stories and gave zero feedback on the story itself, and pointed out grammar and punctuation mistakes as if that were a prize winning objective.
    Fairly obvious who is better ☺

    1. I’ve found that many proof-readers have different skills – the ‘line editor’ variety is handy when it comes to picking up typos. But that’s usually the very last step in any publication, and ‘proof editors’ are needed ahead of that to comment on the nature of the content.

  2. This shows that there’s more to learning how to write than following rules. It’s a process of reading, thinking, writing, reading one’s writing. Do that over and over again (10,000 hours?) and you develop a feel for it, an instinct for writing that sounds and feels right.

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