Wednesday, 11 July 2012

What does a proof-reader do?

What does a proof-reader do? You might think it's obvious: finds typos. And that's true. But it is also more complicated and more technical than that. After all, while some typos are clearly typos, others are stylistic traits and others are not typos at all but do require consistency.

Let me list some of the things my expert proof-reader found in Dear Agent (coming on Aug 10th!):
  • Places where I'd got a very slightly different wording in the contents from the actual wording in the heading, because I'd changed my mind about the heading but not the contents list.
  • I'd used the word blind-folded with a hyphen twice and without twice - the examples were far apart and to notice I'd have to remember to write down every single word that could have two forms as I came to them, so that I could check each one. There are LOADS of words that can be hyphenated or not, equally correctly, but you should do it the same each time.
  • I use British spellings (eg realised not realized) but sometimes my computer auto-Americanises - my proof-reader had to notice.
  • There were some things the meaning of which she wanted to check, because she wasn't sure it would be clear to everyone - this is a crucial task for a proof-reader and requires intelligence.
  • She noticed a couple of bolds or italics which she questioned.
  • She noticed that I seemed to have contradicted myself at one point. I hadn't, but I agreed it wasn't clear, so I adjusted.
  • I'd capitalised something in one place but not another.
Other things a proof-reader must notice:
  • I might have used curly quotes in one place and straight ones in another.
  • Spelling and punctuation errors, of course.
  • Wrong layout or line-spacing.*
  • Inconsistent font/size in headings.
  • Places where headings appear at the bottom of a page, or other uglinesses of layout.
[*Edited to add: layout requirements are different between ebooks and print books. The proof-reader would be told which he or she is doing, but would usually be required to be proofing according to print requirements, which means layout is for a page view and must avoid widows and orphans. Then it would be the job of the formatter to alter to suit the ebook format.

For example, too much white space is a nightmare in some ebook formats. And, as Dan points out in the comments below, widows and orphans are irrelevant because each reader/device can be set up differently. When we read ebooks, we have to accept that sometimes a heading, for example, will appear at the bottom of the "page", ie screen.

I told my proof-reader to ignore widows and orphans and line spacing. I then put in my instructions for the formatter, and I always give her discretion about line spacing, within reason. The formatter is not only a highly expert ebook formatter, using full html, but she was also a trained type-setter. So, I have all bases covered! And there will doubtless still be something that slips through!)]

It's a skilled task. It requires patience, knowledge of correct and varied uses, and a very meticulous way of working. 

The fact that my proof-reader for Dear Agent was my sister probably adds to the pressure! 


Jane Struthers said...

A great post and it's all so true! I do quite a lot of professional proofreading (I used to be an editor for various publishers) and it really is detailed and forensic work when it's done properly, for all the reasons you mention. And it's very satisfying to go through the proofs and catch all the anomalies and queries that are lurking within their pages.

Dan Holloway said...

Interesting you put layout in there. For ebooks this must be a nightmare as there has to be compatibility with all kinds of devices and screen sizes so what's a widow or an orphan on one won't be on another - just how do proof readers deal with all of that?

Nicola Morgan said...

Dan - I'll add something about that...

JO said...

My proofreader for Over the Hill checked the spelling of all my place names - I'd scrawled them in my diary, then copied them onto the screen (so 2 opportunities to make mistakes) and she checked every one - down to the tiniest village in the Himalayas to wonderful rivers in New Zealand. I blush to think how many mistakes would have slipped through the net without her.

Emma Darwin said...

Great post, Nicola and shows the level of detail that so many self-publishers haven't a clue needs attending to.

Am I right to remember that that some of the larger things - contradictions, say, and consistence/house-style over hyphenation - would be picked up by the copy-editor, before it was typeset?

Nicola Morgan said...

Emma - good question. (You probably know the answer but it was kind of you to prompt me!)

Larger things *should* be picked up at earlier levels of editing, before type-setting but a) the more pairs of eyes, the better b) a good proof-reader still needs to have an overall eye as well as an eye for detail and c) many publishing houses are cutting costs by either skipping a stage or not employing the best, qualified and experienced proof-readers.

Jo - hooray! Yes, you're right - that's another thing: names, of people or places. And website URLs.

Miriam Drori said...

Excellent lists, although some of those things wouldn't happen if Word was set up properly.

David said...

Interesting post, although isn’t it troubling that publishing houses are cutting costs by not always employing proofreaders?

I’ve worked as a freelance production journalist for nine years, which involves subbing and editing reporters’ copy for magazines. I have plenty of regular work at the moment, but last year decided to branch out into pure proofreading, firstly to make life more interesting, and secondly because as publications migrate online, the jobs of subs like myself are starting to become threatened.

I sent out NINETY EIGHT emails to publishing houses and related organisations, and from that picked up work from just one, a well-known travel guide company. In the end I proofread three of their guides, which was great, but the vast majority of publishers didn’t even reply, let alone suggest that they would keep me in mind.

All rather depressing really. It’s almost as if people are becoming less concerned about correct spelling and grammar…

myraduffy said...

Is it worth having more than one proof reader? Or does that just complicate matters?

Nicola Morgan said...

Myra - in the normal way of things, one proof-reader is all you need. A professional trained proof-reader would not expect someone else to be doing it as well. However, I'd add two riders: the author would also normally wish to be an extra pair of eyes; and if you are talking about "amateur" proof-reading, ie some eagle-eyed friends to do it for you as a favour, then I'd say the more eyes the better! But there is/can be a big difference between a trained proof-reader and an eagle-eyed friend.

Miriam - I would never rely on Word for a single thing! I've trained my eyes to ignore it utterly!

David - I agree completely. The awful thing is that so many people/organisations just don't realise a) the skill involved and b) why it's worth it. Thirty years ago, I sent out the same email approaches and didn't get a single response!

Marshall Buckley said...

One question, Nicola - does your sister do this as a profession/business, or is she just somebody who is naturally good (and, obviously, trustworthy) at this sort of thing?
For most people, it seems that relying on friends/family will help them pick up some typos etc, but I can't imagine anybody who isn't experienced at this picking up things like inconsistencies with hyphenated words, etc.
Which leaves having to turn to a professional editing service and the costs thereof which, for a self-publisher, can be quite expensive (I recently heard mention of £400, but I'm not sure whether that was a basic proof-read or a full copy-edit).
Just curious...

Deniz Bevan said...

I love proofreading! Thanks for giving a shout out to this often-overlooked role.
Congratulations to your sister :-)