The purpose of today’s post is to blow the whistle on all the self-professed Grammar Nerds who persist in publishing their work without the benefit of a good proofreader.
You know who you are. And if you don’t, consider taking my advice, anyway. Think of it as an insurance policy you might buy before enrolling in an underwater first aid class in shark-infested waters.
I recently sent a Facebook message to a friend (who probably unfriended me minutes later) who I met at an Erma Bombeck Writers Workshop a couple of years ago. I was laughing out loud and thoroughly enjoying her book . . . but trying to ignore a puzzling tendency to place apostrophes and commas where they weren’t needed.
Then, in an essay talking about this very subject, there was a homophone in the very first paragraph. I won’t even use the actual words, but it would be as apparent to you (and to the writer) if someone were to use the word “died” instead of “dyed.” Yeah. It was glaringly obvious.
How did this intelligent, witty, excellent writer miss such a mistake? She likely overlooked it because she was excited about getting her story down, tapping away on the keyboard maniacally. That’s often a sign that we’re doing some of our best writing, right? She missed it because even when she went back to proof her story, her mind was focused on the tale itself. She was evaluating the content, not the WORDS. She missed it because it is damn near impossible to proofread your own work. That takes fresh eyes determined to focus on the words and structure – not the content.
Years ago I was an assistant, then associate editor on a trade magazine called “Beverage Industry.” Oh. My. Goodness. Best job ever! I worked with three incredibly talented guys and we laughed as hard as we worked. If the pay hadn’t been peanuts, I never would have moved on to the next phase of my life. Man. Do you sometimes wonder what might have happened if you’d zigged instead of zagged?
Anyhoo, so the guys I worked with taught me so much and were far better journalists than I. But . . . they sucked at proofreading. These were the days before spell check (which gives writers a false sense of security – do NOT rely on spell check) and every article we wrote for the monthly magazine had to be proofread by two other people before it could be submitted to print.
We all discovered that I had a talent for catching errors (more about that in a second). I’d proof my little heart out and the guys’ copy would be as clean as the proverbial whistle. But guess whose work tended to have mistakes? Yeah. Mine. For two reasons: as mentioned, it’s very, very hard to see your own mistakes. And second, the guys got used to me finding our bloopers, stopped trying quite so hard, and my own stories suffered from the lack of careful attention. I scolded them. They got better. Life was good.
This sounds like I’m bragging about my proofreading prowess, right? Well, here’s the funny thing. My paternal grandmother was a proofreader! Marie only had a high school education, but the nuns thought she was smart and recommended her for a secretarial program (we’re talking about 1915, folks). Eventually her proofreading abilities came to light and before she retired, she had been employed for some years by a publishing firm in that position. This has led me to believe (and the past tense of lead is led – always – otherwise you’re talking about the filling in a pencil) that being able to proofread is possibly some sort of genetic gift.
What do you think? I mean, it seems like we all know someone intelligent who can’t spell worth a damn, right? There you go. You can be a great writer but a lousy proofreader, or vice versa.
So, what I’d like to say to everyone who is thinking about self-publishing a book, or submitting an article to a publication, or in any way putting their precious writing out there for others to see, for God’s sake, pay or barter for a proofreader to review your work before you go to print.
You are not immune to the problem. Neither am I. I have a book idea and I promise you here and now, I will not send it out to anyone before I’ve paid someone to proof my work. That’s not the same as an editor, by the way. That’s another ball of wax, right?
And here’s what I’m offering to anyone who took the time to read this far. If you’re writing something small-ish and want someone to proofread (not edit) it, I’ll do it at no charge if all the stars align and our timing syncs. I’m not offering to proof an entire book. You need to pay a professional for that. But I’ll be glad to read your short story or magazine article. I’m not a pro, but I’m pretty passionate about clean copy.
So there you go. There are people who will say that the message is all that matters. I’ve heard of English teachers telling students that, for crying out loud!
I say bullshit.
If you’re going to write your heart out, don’t let yourself down with little errors that you’d easily catch if you were reading someone else’s work.
Believe you’re worth it. I do.