The Proofreader: The Author’s Last Line of Defense

I once was at an event where I met someone who worked for a newspaper. I asked him, “Are you the editor or do you write a column?” He replied, “No, I’m just the proofreader.” The response made me laugh because he implied that he didn’t think too highly of his role at the newspaper; in my opinion, however, the proofreader is one of the most important people in the production of any piece of writing-whether it’s a newspaper, book, or marketing piece.

You probably know someone-it might even be you-who takes delight in finding typos and telling everyone about it. This person isn’t afraid to post a comment on your Facebook page or blog to point out the word you misspelled. Even people who aren’t that rude will often think less of a book or publication when they see that it is filled with typos. Errors in a publication cry out that the work is of poor quality. And today, with the influx of self-published books into the market, I am more careful than ever in reading a few paragraphs and looking for typos before I decide whether to spend money on a book.

An editor is a vital part of a book’s production. A traditional publishing house will assign an editor to a book, but it will also assign a proofreader. Often, three or four people will edit/proofread the book before it goes into publication. Self-published authors who do their homework generally realize they need an editor, but they don’t always realize that they also need a proofreader.

An editor might also do the proofreading, but I would caution any author to remember that all editors are not the same. Editors come with various qualifications and skills. One might be good at content editing to help you enhance your plot and characters, but he might not catch a typo like “lightening” when you meant “lightning” or even be a good speller. Another editor might be able to punctuate sentences properly, but he does not have the creative mindset to know how to develop a storyline or make an argument flow. And even the best editor is likely to become so close to the work, just like the author, that after the first or second pass through the book, he tends to read with his memory, believing he knows what is on the page, rather than with his eyes, which would actually see what is on the page.

The editors I know who produce quality work are aghast when typos are found in books they have edited, and they are also willing to admit they are not perfect-that they can miss a misspelled word, or a word that is misused in a certain context. And a good editor will not be territorial but rather pleased that an author hires a proofreader to double-check the work.

Problems can occur when working with a proofreader, so authors must be upfront with the proofreader about what they want. Many times I’ve heard editors complain about proofreaders because authors come back to them saying the proofreader found all kinds of errors in the book; the editor then discovers that the proofreader, instead of proofreading, decided to play editor and rewrite the book, not correcting typos but changing phrases based on his own stylistic preferences; the author, in turn, not possessing good editing skills, might not know the difference between rewording a grammatically incorrect sentence and a stylistic change, which can lead the author to believing the editor was incompetent because the proofreader went overboard.

To solve this problem, authors should always let proofreaders know that they simply want the proofreader to look for typos or grammatical errors. Nothing stylistic should be changed. Furthermore, authors should communicate with both the proofreader and editor. The editor should be allowed to look at the changes or corrections the proofreader suggests and then approve them or explain why they should not be accepted. The editor should get this second pass both so he is aware of where he made a mistake and to ensure that the proofreader is not introducing new errors into the book. I can’t tell you how many times an author who hired a good editor ends up producing a book with typos because the proofreader was incompetent. Remember, just because someone is a teacher or has an English degree does not necessarily mean he or she will make a good proofreader any more than a good mechanic will necessarily be a good person to design a vehicle.

When hiring an editor, let him know up-front that you plan to hire a proofreader also. If he becomes argumentative about it, you might want to look for a different editor. If you and the editor are in agreement that a proofreader is a good idea, you might ask the editor to recommend a proofreader-perhaps he has worked with a proofreader in the past and they have worked well together. If not, ask for recommendations from other authors you know. While you can go online to find a proofreader, it’s always best to get recommendations. And before you hire a recommended proofreader, look at the book he proofread. If Mary Jane tells you that Henry proofread her book and did a great job but you find a typo on the first page, think again-if you read another ten pages and don’t find a typo, Henry might still be a good choice; no one will catch every typo. Just be discerning and do a little research before hiring a proofreader.

Finally, just as you would ask your editor to give you an edit sample of a few pages to determine whether you can work with him, you should ask the proofreader to give you a proofreading sample to see what sorts of errors or issues he will catch. If he rewrites your manuscript, think again, or realize that he’s finding issues that your editor should have caught. The point is to make sure you know what you are paying for before you hire someone.

A proofreader can be the last line of defense between an author and the reading public. Don’t try to cut corners by not hiring a proofreader. Good proofreading is essential for producing a quality product that will make readers rave about your book rather than rant about your typos.

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