Sunday, 24 July 2011

Ten Things the Small Press Can Do As Well (Or Better) Than the Professional Press, Part 5: Proof Reading

It's been a while since I've done one of these "ten things" posts, so to ease myself back in, I've gone for something relatively uncontentious - at least in theory. There can't be many editors out there who'd argue that proofreading isn't something they should have to bother themself with.

To be clear, I'm not talking about editing here, a subject I covered a while back.  In fact, to be really clear, I should probably explain the distinction I'm making, since I'm never entirely sure if it's one I've just made up somewhere along the line.  By editing, I mean suggesting changes to a story that alter sense and meaning, that are enhancements rather than simple corrections.  By proof-reading, on the other hand, I'm talking specifically about correcting spelling and grammatical errors, fixing clear technical and formal mistakes, that kind of thing.

An editor should be able to do this.  They should have a good enough knowledge of spelling and grammar, and of the intricacies of language, that they'll be able to spot and repair the vast majority of errors.  As obvious and inarguable as that sounds, it's possibly-contentious statement number one.  Because, doesn't that raise the bar pretty damn high from the off?  Doesn't it imply a standard that all but rules out the casual - and therefore, the average small press - editor?  I mean, what are we saying here, that you need a couple of English degrees before you can even think about running a magazine or putting together an anthology?

In ye olden times, maybe, when checking a spelling meant sending one of your clerks to consult with the good doctor Johnson.  Now, we have word processing software with hugely sophisticated spellcheckers and grammar checkers.  And - because however hugely sophisticated a piece of software is, it will still get it catastrophically wrong sometimes - we have kind people who create neat, easily understood guides on the kind of grammatical eccentricities that used be the domain of migraine-inducing text books and then give them away on the internet.  If you're not sure on something, the odds are pretty damn good that the answers you need are out there.

Combine those two resources with careful reading, preferably by a couple of people, and you stand a good chance of eradicating the vast majority of errors.  Sure, some will always slip through, but then any reasonable reader will expect that.  The point is that nowadays, when it comes to proofreading, time and concentration and maybe a few hours up front familiarising yourself with the major rules of grammar can compensate for months of technical education - and that one or two determined amateurs can achieve much the same as their professional counterparts.

On to possibly-contentious statement number two, then.  It isn't enough to go through an author's work neatly righting what's wrong like some kind of literary Littlest Hobo.  A proof reader should send out proofs.  That is, if they're doing their job properly, they should send something to the author identifying every change they're proposing before they make it - even if they're only spelling mistakes, replacing misplaced semi-colons, switching a misused "that" for a grammatically correct "which".  Because, just because one person thinks something's a mistake, just because Word says it is, there's always a chance it isn't.  And because there's nothing more frustrating for a writer than to have your work come out and find that someone's broken it on your behalf, in however small a way.

Why don't more markets send out proofs?  The only time I've ever gotten into a discussion of the subject with an editor, he told me it was because he was concerned no one would buy a copy if it was sent to all the contributors for free.  Now that statement could fuel a blog post - even a series of blog posts - on its own, but let's settle for countering it with a positive example from a different editor.  Said other editor gets around the potential problem by cutting his proof into story-sized chunks and only sending each author their own work.  Hey presto!  It's a little extra work, undoubtedly, but the result is one of the more reliably error-free small press magazines out there.

Good proof reading treads a fine line.  A careless editor is likely to let mistakes slip through, making themselves and the writers involved look unnecessarily amateurish.  An over-enthusiastic or over-confident editor runs the risk of taking needless liberties with an author's work, or even of fixing errors that were never there in the first place.  That said, it's certainly not a line that's impossible to tread.  In the first instance it requires that bit of extra effort, and a willingness to explore the resources that out there to make the process easier.  In the second, I guess what's needed is a certain amount of ingenuity, not to mention a degree of respect for the creators you're working with.

Ultimately, in either case - and like just about everything I've talked about in these posts - the main qualities that are required to get proof reading right are time and dedication.  But get it right, and it's surely one of the easiest ways to look professional on a budget.