Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Donkeys and vodka: the mad science of proofreading

by Perry Iles, Chamber Proof (

Proof readers, proofreaders or proof-readers? We can’t even agree on how our job titles should be written down. What total bellends (bell-ends or bell ends) we are. But then no two proofreaders think alike anyway, because we’re all maverick geniuses, frustrated novelists and deeply flawed garret-dwelling paupers with nothing better to do than use our combination of OCD and Asperger’s Syndrome to pick apart the work of others. And we’ll never get it right because there is no right. Language is fluid—especially English, because the world’s greatest superpower speaks it all over the globe. There are those who think that America has dragged the English language kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century, and there are those who think that America has dragged it into a dark alley and beaten the living crap out of it. Who in the hell ever thought to use the word “disrespect” as a verb? It wasn’t one of our chaps, I’ll bet. Either way, an assault has been mounted, and the proofreader’s job is to defend a book against the slings and arrows of error and change. Which of course means that while I’m fending off mediaeval English weaponry with a stout oaken shield, some American in a sharp suit and sunglasses will pop up in front of me and shoot me in the face. While dictionaries and manuals try to pin down the elusive butterfly of correct prose and grammar, off it goes in a different direction, raising either two fingers or a middle digit at you, depending upon which side of the Atlantic you’re on. Language flows elegant and smooth like a glacier, changing shape and form as it goes.

Which means that for some words there is no right or wrong. When you get into your car, do you put on a seat belt, a seat-belt or a seatbelt? When you can’t be arsed to cook, will you have a take-away a takeaway? There is only consistency, which is the First Rule of Proofreading. Be consistent. Check the preferences of your author. It’s their book after all. Maintain an open channel at all times, dash off query emails. They’ll love you when you find a spelling error or some missing punctuation, but they’ll hate you when you overrule their preferences with your own when rules don’t apply. It takes only a moment to ask an author if their main character eats hash browns, hash-browns or hashbrowns.  
And don’t even talk to me about punctuation. Go talk to Lynne Truss, she knows it all. She’ll tell you when to use the Oxford comma and when to eschew it. Read Strunk and White, they’ll tell you when to use colons and semi-colons instead of full stops. Then try to act on what they say in a real life writing situation. Often you’ll find they’re talking bollocks. Or they’re trying to be clever buggers by shoehorning correct grammar into a sentence that needs changing anyway because it hasn’t been written right in the first place. These books are to writing what the Highway Code is to driving. They’ll tell you the rules, but they won’t make you a good writer. They’ll just teach you to run over fewer people, rather than less people. So here’s the Second Rule of Proofreading: If you’re stuck on the punctuation, the chances are the wording is wrong, because if the wording was right, you wouldn’t be stuck on it, would you? There you are, happily proofreading away without a care in the world, and then you get to something that stops you in your tracks with one of those comedy skid-noises they use when Fred Flintstone brings his car to a standstill using his feet. Here:

“Honestly, darling, I went to Sainsbury’s, Tesco, and Marks and Spencer’s but I couldn’t get those socks you like; perhaps you should try shopping on-line.”
The author (and the proofreader) is all in a lather about the use of semi-colons in dialogue, Oxford commas, possessive apostrophes, the double-use of “and” and that unnecessary hyphen in “on-line”, when they should be worrying about the ghastly dialogue instead. You could proofread that sentence until your brain started dribbling out of your ears. Go on, knock yourself out. But rather than just checking the grammar, the proofreader should offer a gentle nudge and tell the writer that people don’t really speak like that, and that it might be better to re-write the sentence along the following lines:

“Listen love, I went to every bloody supermarket in town and none of them had your socks. Try online, OK?”
There, that’s better, isn’t it? A good proofreader would underline that first sentence and suggest rewriting it a bit more like the second, because that sort of light copy-editing is part of a proofreader’s job. It’s part of mine, anyway. And when punctuation stops me in my tracks, re-wording the sentence will improve matters nine times out of ten. So before you start dicking about with the semi-colons and the fiddly shite, read that sentence out loud in front of a mirror or a loved one. Chances are you can say it better and more simply without, as Cormac McCarthy puts it, “peppering your writing with all those unnecessary marks”. Think about what punctuation actually is. It’s not writing, it’s not poetry, it’s not great literature. It’s instructions. Stop here, pause there. Add emphasis! Are you asking a question? Oh gosh, someone’s about to say something. Here come some speech-marks, look! In good writing, most of these things come naturally anyway. Punctuation should be light, unobtrusive and minimal. Punctuation tells the readers what your writing should be showing them. You don’t need exclamation marks. Get rid of them. All of them, unless you’re writing children’s fiction. Adults know when someone is shouting, and it’s your job as a writer to show people being angry, not tell us they’re yelling their heads off. Get rid of colons and semi colons in fiction. They’re horrid little nasty half-hearted things anyway. They’re not big and they’re not clever. They are to punctuation what adverbs are to prose. Write your way round them and your writing will be better for it. Declare war on commas, use “and” more often. Write shorter sentences. Write longer sentences. Free your prose. Let it dance about without being tied down by unnecessary punctuation. Be more colloquial. Be free. You’re a writer. It’s fun. You’re dancing with the wind in your hair, not tapping out two-fingered sludge.

Proofreaders are there to polish your little red wagon, to make sure your book doesn’t go out into the world with its skirt tucked into its underwear. We do that not only by finding errors, but by making suggestions—small, light and often. Editors will tell you to make structural changes, to write out unnecessary characters altogether, to revise entire chapters. Proofreaders won’t do that, they’ll just buff up the details and offer a light copy-edit. They aren’t there to check out the shape of your forest, they’re there to examine the bark on the trees. And even then, there will be errors. There WILL be errors. I bet there are errors in this article if you look hard enough, and if there aren’t errors, there are things you’d have written differently. I once wrote and self-published a book in which it got cold in my car so I turned the heather on. This was doubly embarrassing, as Heather is my wife’s name (she was not in the car at the time. We were not dogging. Honestly, officer. Look at the moon, my mother would have understood…) The point there is that you read what you want to be there. You read what makes sense. As an author, I not only wrote that error, but on the dozens of rewrites and re-reads I let it stay there until it became encysted in my head, part of the manuscript. A friend read it once, after I’d published it, and said “You’ll never guess what you’ve written here…” so I had to kill her. A simple proofread and that poor woman would still be alive today.

Which also applies to names, by the way. Rule whatever (I’ve lost count) of proofreading is to google every single one of the fictional characters’ names in the book you’re working on, just in case the author hasn’t done that first. That way you’ll be able to check that they aren’t the same as famous people in fields you’re unfamiliar with, or a name you perhaps heard on the news and has stuck in your mind to re-emerge seven years later as the name for your baddie. You may not be familiar with football, movie stars of the 1930s or death metal, but some of your readers will be. Remember that the bad guy in Double Jeopardy was called Nicholas Parsons and that a book by English romantic novelist EV Thompson had a leading character called Tom Hanks in it. So before you use a cool name like Harry Styles or Matt Bellamy or Frank Black, go and google it, or people will point at you and laugh.

Your book is the God to which its creators bow down. The author is the prime creator, but there is a host of others who help dress your book up and make it look nice. The proofreader is but one of many, he’s the final polisher, the one who buffs the lacquer on what Stephen King calls your little red wagon. But proofreading is an inexact science. Pinning the English language down into a static form is like a pin-the-tail-on-a-donkey game in which you’ve been rapidly spun ten times and then force-fed a pint of vodka. And the donkey is real and moving and wants to kick you very hard because some cruel bastard has cut its tail off. The best you can hope for is that your book is enjoyed, recommended, critically acclaimed and sells by the warehouse-load. But one day, when you’re relaxing on your yacht in Monte Carlo harbour surrounded by women made of silicone or men with abs you could bounce marbles off, you’ll come across an error in your latest manuscript and suddenly you’ll feel like Madonna falling downstairs at the Brits, and your screams will echo from the mountains that surround the bay, and the head you’ll call for will quite possibly be mine.


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