Grammar Nerd turns Grammar Scold . . . sorry, not sorry

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.

Apostrophe book
Punctuation can be amusing. Thank you, Sue Brooks, for this fun and helpful book.

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.


Tolstoy chess
Tolstoy didn’t need to proofread his work. He had publishing houses and typesetters doing that. He could sit around in the yard and play chess with his kids instead.

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.

Grammar Nazi from Imgflip

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.

Stephen King guitar
Stephen King doesn’t have to proofread, either. Maybe if we get rich and famous we can play in a band instead of doing the grunt work, too.

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.

18 thoughts on “Grammar Nerd turns Grammar Scold . . . sorry, not sorry

  1. It’s really easy to overlook mistakes. I’m sure my blog posts are full of them. I would hope that if I ever wrote something of worth that I would be smart enough to have someone proof it. A non-writing example – I am working on a video for work. I was recording people’s voice overs for the video and was listening for audio quality and missed that someone dropped the one thousand from the script. It was an important word. Luckily, someone else listened and caught the mistake and we were able to re-record. The more eyes and ears the better.

  2. It sure is! I wouldn’t expect anyone to hire a proofreader for a blog, but I do my best to look at my posts a few times before hitting “publish.” Eyes AND ears are vital! Thanks for commenting!

  3. It’s hard to be taken seriously when your writing is a mess, isn’t it? It takes so much away from an otherwise good story.

  4. I came by your blog and decided to read the piece about proofreading. I would definitely agree with you that during the process of working on a fiction work it is always going to stand you in good stead given the consideration for making sure that the narrative is given good care attributed to the function of grammar. When you get your ideas down first of all you need to allow you to express the words you have written on the page the way that you want them to be expressed and then encourage those writing skills to give you confidence that the expressions read in the appropriate manner that fits the grammar properly. Most importantly I consider that it is worth having a work of fiction proofread because it doesn’t bring very much fluidity with efficient measures in the flow of the words when a situation arises that means the grammar doesn’t move the text in the right direction it needs.

    1. You’re so right! When the muse is feeding your imagination, write like a crazy person! Go, go, go! We need to take advantage of those creative juices when they’re flowing, but take time at some point to tidy up our prose. Tighten up the story, sweep away the fluff, hone in on the typos, check the spelling you’re not 100% sure about. It’s all part of the process. I doubt any of us could afford to pay a proofreader to scan our blog posts; we need to rely on ourselves. I learned to walk away from the story for an hour, a day, whatever time I can afford, then go back fresh to review it. For the “big stuff,” I’ll gladly pay a professional to do it right. Thanks for stopping by!

  5. I’m with you on the proofreading, Kate. I do my own plus I subscribe to paid version of Grammarly which I find very helpful. And I also bought the program Hemingway which helps me look at sentence structure, use of passive voice, and adverbs. I can pick out a spelling or word usage error a mile away and often will unsubscribe to blogs that routinely include them. There are too many good writers out there to spend time reading those with grammar mistakes. That may sound harsh but it is like fingernails on a chalkboard to me.

    1. Thanks for suggesting Grammarly and Hemingway, Molly. I officially retired last month and after a vacation coming up at the end of the week, I’m going to dive in to the nonfiction book concept I’m excited to begin. Woo hoo! Well, kind of “woo hoo.” Excited, scared, determined to overcome my basically lazy nature now that there’s nothing I HAVE to do, etc., etc. I know you get it.

  6. No matter how many times I proofread my blogs, every once in a while someone will catch a goof and tell me (and I am grateful I do). I have friends who have self-published that look amateur because of errors. If I ever write a book, I will hire an editor and find at least a couple other picky people to read it, too. It’s one thing to just miss a mistake–a misspelled word, for instance–but it’s another thing to NOT KNOW the rules. I know some good writers with advanced degrees who do not know how to punctuate dialogue! And don’t even start me on apostrophes. I’m kind of a snob about it; I do judge people who sign their Christmas cards with “the Smith’s.” I have relatives on FB that make such errors. They are not stupid people. I could teach them in five minutes how to prevent their mistakes, but . . .

    1. Thanks, Sandy. As I was writing today’s post, I didn’t notice until about the third time I’d revised and proofed that instead of “car” I’d typed “care.” The writer’s eye tends to see what we intend to write rather than what is really there. I just fixed a homophone in your comment! Same story. We Grammar Nerds need to watch each others’ backs. Please let me know if/when you see any of my goofs, Sandy. I’ll appreciate it.

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