My working career has always revolved around the written word in one form or another; from typing to running a wordprocessing agency, from typesetting manuscripts to proofing and editing all manner of books, legal and statutory documents and much more besides. Wearing a writer’s hat, I have attended countless writing seminars, courses, conferences, and a member of small and large writing groups and communities. I’ve done the jumping through hoops and agonised over that wretched synopsis, learned what is accepted practice and what is not. Thus, whenever I read a book, be it conventionally published or otherwise, I cringe at the errors in the proofing and editing spotted in an increasing number of these books.
“But it’s the story that counts!” is a retort I’ve heard so often it’s almost become a cliché. “Readers can forgive the odd typo, the odd spelling mistake, the missed punctuation.” Sorry, author, that is not the case. Most don’t, certainly not if errors are there in herds that leap out of the page at you. Mistakes do, will and can throw a reader right out of the story; that is their job – to make a reader not want to finish, never mind buy another of your books again. Is that what you really want? It’s not the odd little typo that’s the troublemaker; it’s the glaring howlers that shouldn’t have got through that irritate. Those misspelled or wrong words, the bad punctuation and inconsistencies that all should have been corrected long before a book was thrust into the hands of your paying readership. The poor formatting, the switched tenses and lazy grammar that poke you in the eye and confuse the brain. Even if a book is offered free of charge, a writer owes it the reader to present it in the best manner possible. Proofreading is a whole lot more than just checking the spelling.
When I hear or read comments such as, “Well, my mother/granny/friend proofed it” or, even more worrying, “I checked it myself”, I know I shall not bother to read the book. If you don’t care enough about your work then why should I as a reader? You see, it takes a trained, experienced eye to see the mistakes, to know the things to look out for. The Society of Editors and Proofreaders advocates you cannot proof your own work, not because they are touting for your business but because it is true. A given. Your brain doesn’t read what your eye sees. Your brain already knows your story, it wrote it and knows what should be there without seeing what actually is. Scientific fact. You might have the word spelt correctly but is it the right word? Have you placed too much reliance on computer spellcheckers and the next-to-useless grammar checker? These mechanical devices cannot and do not know the difference between plain and plane or bear and bare, breath and breathe, principle and principal. They do not know that forget-me-nots do not grow in England during September, that there’s a difference between mum as a noun and Mum as pronoun, or between having lead in your pencil or being led up the garden path. That you toe the line, not tow the line. I have no doubt there are errors in this text, which goes to show you cannot proof your own work and that proofreading is a whole lot more than just checking the spelling.
Grammar is another minefield. What is acceptable to one school of thought or continent may not be to another. Most authors write as they speak. That is good, it forms part of the author’s voice, brings stories and characters to life. Books written in the Queen’s English, all grammatically proper and correct, or presumed correct, can appear stuffy and, frankly, dull, especially when it is clear the writer has striven so hard to do it in this way. It doesn’t work. And who says you can’t start a sentence with And or But or Because? Who wrote the rule that you cannot split an infinitive? There are no such rules. Prose that switches tenses, uses superfluous adjectives and a never-ending stream of he said, she said, is boring, and unnecessary if the narrative is crafted skilfully. Proofing is a whole lot more than just checking the spelling.
When we speak, we use intonation of voice, eye contact, hand gestures, to convey our meanings. We don’t have commas and fullstops and quotation marks. When writing we need punctuation to perform this function, but used in the wrong place it can change complete meanings, make reading difficult. And if reading your text is difficult, it isn’t doing its job. A bear eats shoots and leaves is a whole lot different to A bear eats, shoots, and leaves. There was a theory that a comma means this is where you take a breath, a semi-colon a longer breath and a colon an even greater pause. Not correct. Too often, writers suffer with that common complaint known as comma diarrhoea – too many, too often, and in the most inappropriate places. And as for those rogue apostrophes …
This isn’t unique to self-published books. I’ve seen glaring errors from conventional publishing houses too, often due to being a sad marker of lean, economic times in publishing when the proofreader is often the first to be let go, leaving it up to the author to get it right or, at most, the editor. Editors do an excellent job, a hard job, and they are not infallible. Neither am I. I get it wrong sometimes. Even I get confused with compliment and complement occasionally. I was taught that anything to do with time you used the word past, as in past, present and future, and anything to do with movement was from the verb to pass, as in he walked passed the breadshop. A lesson I understand now to be wrong. Am I?
What really annoys is these so-called independent publishers who take your money, claiming to offer a full editing service, often charging extra for proofing, when in fact they don’t bother to do the job properly. Those that don’t seem to care about your work, they already have your money. A form of daylight robbery. The Kindle and ebooks and ipads etc are wonderful inventions allowing writers to reach a reading public they would never have touched through conventional methods, and it is time the big boys moved over, but if self-published authors want to be taken seriously, elevate themselves out of the “vanity” publishing mindset held by others, make reviewers and readers and people sit up and take notice, they owe it to readers to get it right.
Proofreading need not be expensive. It’s time consuming, yes, but oh so vital. Circumvent this important element of the writing process at your peril because proofreading is more than just checking the spelling.
Recommended reading: Eats Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss
Great article, Kit. Reading a poorly proofed and edited product is a total letdown. Proofing and editing is every bit as important as the writing… maybe even more.
Liking your vehemence here! And of course I entirely agree.
Now as for that breadshop – surely it’s ‘I walked past’ because ‘past’ is a preposition (like ‘into’ ). Past can also be a noun (the past) or in your example (past tense) maybe a noun used as an adjective . But ‘I passed’ the breadshop is right because ‘passed’ is past (!) tense of the verb ‘to pass’.
Some of those teachers had a lot to answer for. As for me, I could spend hours on things like this -and probably still get shot down in flames!
(Ducks behind parapet).
You certainly had a better teacher than I did in the past. Thanks for clearing up that little matter, you have explained it well.
You can stand up now; it’s safe.
Hi Kit and Chris – agree with both of you. It’s also a process that requires the author and the copy editor/proof reader to work together as a team, to ensure the best result. In today’s competitive market it is essential to present your work in as professional a manner as possible. What is nice is when, as a reader, you can see a new author ‘grow’ and how their work improves as they learn those vital early lessons. Lessons that often will only be learnt the hard way simply because so many authors have to ‘do it themself’ to start with, because they aren’t sure where to start, or what help they need. Excellent article Kit! Thank you.
Oh, my. I totally agree. There is nothing that turns me off a book faster than bad proofing and editing.