Posted: 2018-08-26

Why We Proofread Our Work

by Zen Master

Really, there are only two reasons to get your work proofread. The first is for your readers: To make your books, essays, procedures, or stories easier to read and less confusing for your readers. That translates directly to more useful, for reference works, and more enjoyable, for entertainment works. The second is for you, the writer. If you want to produce the best work you can, instead of going over it countless times trying to find all the problems, you can get help. Let it become someone else’s headache!

There are many fields where a second look is considered normal. In any sort of construction or manufacturing field, the work is usually inspected by someone who works for the company. That’s not strictly required, but anything that includes a warranty or guarantee or some sort of promise to last forever and never break can cost the company a lot of money if an easily-fixable issue is allowed out the door.

It’s cheaper to just pay an inspector who can halt a shipment if he sees a problem. Fix the problem, ship it out, get paid. Never get complaints. Sometimes an outside inspector is mandated. Anything related to customer or public safety will end up with a government inspector of some sort. He may be called a “Code Enforcer” or even something else, but it’s his job to find safety issues. Buildings and bridges can’t be turned over to the public until they have been signed off by various inspectors. Airplanes can’t even be used by their own manufacturers until various inspectors have had their say.

Who is going to be reading your work? We call that the “target audience”, the people your writing is intended for.

You may be writing instructions on how to assemble a back-yard swing. Get them wrong, and a lot of angry parents will want your head for their injured children. Your “target audience” is adults with a high-school education. It is a reasonable assumption that parents who build kits and read instructions are at that reading level. Therefore, you can write to that reading level. Responsible parents who need help will go get a neighbor.

Or, you may be writing instructions on how to disassemble a roadside bomb. Screw that up, and the users won’t bother you but their co-workers and heirs will. Your “target audience” is adults with very little education because you won’t get to choose who has to follow them out in the field; the only people available to do the job may not have a good education. So, in this case you make sure that your instructions are useable by anyone.

Either way, when you are done writing, you can validate your instructions by simply handing them to someone who knows nothing about swingsets or bombs and seeing if they can follow them without having any questions.

Or, you may just be writing a story to entertain your family. Even then, you want to get it right because it’s embarrassing when your 11-year-old niece corrects your grammar.

So, getting your writing correct is important. It’s important to you, it’s important to your readers, and it’s important to everyone who might be affected by your writing.

But, how do you make sure your writing is ‘correct’? What does that even mean? English is a huge language. The Oxford English Dictionary, which is pretty much the last word on the subject, says there are more than 200,000 words in English. As of this writing, there are web pages that say English has 600,000 words. Doesn’t really matter which is more correct; either number is too large to deal with.

Anyway, no matter what you want to say, there are probably multiple ways to say it. As the writer, you get to choose how you say something. For that, you’ll write in a dialect that your readers can understand. Education level is important here too. A Christmas story for young children who are in their second or third year of school will not be written the same way as one for adults with college educations.

Writing about someone who speaks a different dialect from everyone else in the story is harder. A short story -intended to be published in Sydney- about an Australian who is vacationing in Jamaica will not use the same words as a short story -intended for publication in Kingston- about a Jamaican who is visiting Australia. Either story would use different words again, if intended for a London or Chicago audience. It may be the same story, but it will use four different sets of words depending upon the target audience.

The problem is that us humans are pretty mistake-prone. We accidentally type the wrong letter, we leave a word out, we add an extra word, we use the WRONG word, we screw up the punctuation or gender or plurality or tense. We go back and change something and either delete too much or leave the original in. We even use the wrong word on purpose because we ‘know’ something that isn’t true.

And that’s all stuff that can go wrong with a single sentence. When we start to string sentences together to make paragraphs, scenes, chapters, and novels, the possible mistakes become overwhelming.

What’s worse, a writer won’t see many of his own mistakes. When he goes back over a paragraph to check it, his mind will supply what is SUPPOSED TO BE THERE instead of reading what is actually on the paper or screen. I do it, you do it, everybody does it. We know it’s happening and we fight it, but we don’t completely succeed.

These days, computers are getting smarter and everyone has access to a spell-checker program. The problem there is that it has a long list (remember those huge numbers?) of properly-spelled words and all it can do is compare what you wrote to its list.

What if you are using special-purpose words that aren’t in that list? If you’re a mechanic explaining the difference between a Crescent wrench, a Stillson wrench, and a Ford wrench, you’re likely to get several words flagged as ‘wrong’ simply because they aren’t in the spell-checker’s list of commonly used words. (The program I’m using to write this objects to “Stillson”. That isn’t a word!)

Most spell-checkers allow you to add a new word to the list. That’s great, but for God’s sake make sure you are spelling it correctly when you add it!

A worse problem is when you use the wrong word:

“After work Sam walked down to the par for a drink.”

The spell-checker will pass this. Every word is legal. There’s nuthin’ wrong there!

You can, if you choose, spend the rest of your life re-reading your work, trying to find all the errors. The usual solution, though, is to get some other poor schmuck to read your work. He or she has no idea what the author intended to be written. All he or she can do is actually read the words on the paper or the screen and point out all of your mistakes. Only a human will realize that you probably meant ‘bar’ in that sentence.

Or maybe, there’s a festival downtown and you really meant ‘park’. Or maybe even ‘party’. Or, if Sam works down near the waterfront and there’s a sailor’s dive named “The Broken Spar”, you might even have meant ‘Spar’. Only an honest-to-God human proofreader can flag that sentence as a problem. Of course, when he hands your work back to you all marked-up with red ink, you have to go over what he found and figure out how to fix it all.

That, naturally, leads to other changes (“He’s right, I should move that scene in Chapter 3 to the ‘Broken Spar’! That’s a great idea!”) and you may end up handing him Version 2 in a couple of days. Unfortunately, he won’t do as well because now he’s familiar with your work and he will be reading with his mind’s eye just like you do.

When I’m done (or when I THINK I’m done) with one of my stories, I give it to several first-run readers to find everything they can. After I fix all that, I give it to some other readers who haven’t seen it yet. I’ve got one “final pass” guy, TomKen, who just doesn’t want to see my masterpiece until everyone else is done playing with it. When I get Version 3 (or 4, or 5... ) back from Tom, I fix his issues and publish it. Anything else I do to the story at this point is just as likely to add problems as fix them.

Of course, not everyone wants a proofreader. Some people consider the whole idea to be a personal insult. I recently posted a note on Storiesonline.net that “Everyone needs a proofreader”. I got roughly twenty replies that boiled down to “Right on, man!” from both writers and readers.

I also got two from writers which boiled down to “Screw that! They are getting what they paid for. I’m not doing that. If they don’t like it, they can stop reading my stuff.” And I completely agree with them. I knew one of them, and I won’t read his work. It’s too poorly-written. I didn’t know the other guy, but I won’t be reading any of his work, either.

So, what does a Proofreader do, exactly?

Well, what he actually does is a cross between what he can do for you, and what you want him to do. You may want everything checked. You may just want the punctuation checked. He may be able to do everything. He may not be able to do anything for you except help you with word choice and grammar. Never trust a proofreader on spelling! What if he’s wrong? If you aren’t sure, check it. It’ll save you embarrassment later.

Let’s start at the smallest scale, a sentence. A proofreader should notice if the grammar, spelling, word choice, or punctuation have issues. (Hopefully we don’t need to define any of those concepts here; if we do then the person reading this essay is not ready to be a writer.) There are other things that can go wrong, too: a complicated sentence may also have gender, plurality, or tense issues.

Gender is when she starts something, but he finishes it, and it appears that we may be talking about the same person. The proofreader may propose a fix, or merely say “which is he/she?”

Plurality is when the number or quantity doesn’t match. “Ball” is singular, there’s only one. “Balls” has an extra letter meaning there is more than one. The proofreader should catch it when you say “Tom threw seven ball at me.”

A related issue is possession. In English, we use a single quote mark to imply that someone has something. “Jane” is a person. “Janes” means more than one Jane. “Jane’s” means only one Jane, but she has something. “Janes’” means more than one Jane, and they all have something. Maybe they have a club? “We’re having a meeting at the Janes’ Club tonight. You’re named Jane so you can go.”

Tense is when the sentence can’t make up its mind whether we’re talking about now, earlier in time, or in the future. If you write “Tomorrow I went to the bank” the proofreader should question “Did you mean ‘yesterday I went’, or did you mean ‘tomorrow I will go’?”

Most important, does the sentence even have meaning? Do the words, together, say something? Or is there something missing, or the wrong word used, or an extra word that needs to come out?

On to the next step. Sentences are usually grouped into paragraphs which are supposed to be roughly about the same subject. If you change the subject, it’s probably time for a new paragraph.

This is something that I in particular have trouble with when I’m writing. I’ll be in the zone, words flying off the keyboard onto the screen, and after a few paragraphs I’ll stop and look at what I wrote. Far too often I realize that “This sentence doesn’t fit. It should be in THAT paragraph.” Or, often, in its own paragraph which then needs a few more sentences to look right.

(When I was writing this the above two paragraphs started out as one, but I realized that there were two different things being talked about -a grouping concept and my own trouble with the concept- and they should be split into two paragraphs.)

Size is important, too. No, I’m still talking about paragraphs. I generally try to keep my paragraphs small, between three and six sentences. Any more sentences than that and it should probably be split up somehow. Sometimes, the answer isn’t two paragraphs but rather a list.

One hard and fast rule is that, when writing dialog -dialogue if you are British- each speaker gets his or her own paragraph. Unfortunately, sometimes a speaker starts talking and won’t shut up. In that case, you’ll have to come up with reasonable paragraph breaks in the middle of the speech. When I have a speaker who won’t shut up, I usually type something like this:

“Yadda, yadda, yadda, yadda...”

Jimmy had to stop and catch his breath before he could continue. “Yadda, yadda, yadda, yadda...”

You could just shove his five-page speech into one long paragraph, since it’s dialog it’s legal, but it’s hard to read. Your readers will appreciate giving THEM a chance to figuratively catch their breath if you break it up.

Oh, and many text tools choke on extra-long paragraphs. My favorite programming editor counts characters since the ‘line’ began, and if you reach 1K (1024) in a single paragraph it helpfully starts a new paragraph for you. That causes an amazing amount of trouble if you didn’t notice...

So, your proofreader will be looking at your paragraphs, to ensure that the sentences work well together. He may suggest re-arranging the sentences. Or, he may suggest pulling some out, or splitting the paragraph up. He may even suggest combining two short ones.

He’ll also look at tense over the whole paragraph. I recently received a story that bounced from present to past to present to future to past to present tense, all in one paragraph. The FIRST paragraph of the story. Trying to read that for content would give me a headache.

Each sentence was fine on its own, but if the paragraph is about “what’s happening now” then everything in it should be present tense. The writer should use two other paragraphs to talk about the past and the future.

After some emails back and forth, it came out that the writer speaks English-as-a-Third-Language. There’s a reason why he is having so much trouble writing well in English. One solution I suggested was to write his story in his native language, run it through a translator service, and then hand THAT to a proofreader to fix what’s left. Use a computer program when you can, just don’t trust it.

The next larger building-block is a ‘chunk’. There may be a better technical term, but I like ‘chunk’. A chunk is a group of paragraphs that work together. Maybe you’re describing a high school football game. You’re really going into a lot of detail for the trick play that broke the tie. You’ll want a paragraph each for what each key player does, as well as additional paragraphs for the officials, the coaches, the players on the sidelines, the announcer and the spectators.

After all the dust has settled, the game will continue, but that will be the next ‘chunk’. Don’t talk about what your star player is doing with his girlfriend after the game. Sure, go into all the detail you want if it’s that sort of story, but put it all in a different scene. It doesn’t belong in the middle of this chunk about the trick play.

Unless it’s part of the trick play, of course. TV news segment, a young man in pads, hot, sweaty, breathing hard, with a microphone shoved in his face: “I don’t remember what I did. I got the ball, I remember juking a lineman, and all I could think was ‘if we lose I’m not getting laid tonight’. I’ll have to watch the film to see what happened.” Sure, you can shove that into the chunk about the trick play.

Can you imagine his girlfriend’s parents seeing that interview on the local news that night? Oops. That’s yet a different chunk, of course.

Another concept is the ‘scene’. All the writing about a particular event or process is a ‘scene’. Some short stories about high school may dismiss the first year in just a sentence or two. Longer stories may have a scene for each year. Novels may divide each year into multiple scenes for classes, a big party, Thanksgiving weekend, the big game, what happens after the game, and so on.

The next larger building-block isn’t a writing concept, but rather a publishing concept. Many larger stories are divided into “Chapters” which are conveniently-digestable sections of the overall story. Depending upon the story, it may have multiple short scenes in a single chapter, or it may take more than one chapter to deal with a single scene.

That’s one way to tell a chunk from a scene. You won’t break up a chunk aross chapters. You might split a scene, though. Perhaps one chunk is all about the beginning of the party and then the next chapter has a chunk about the fight that happened when Tony got drunk. It’s still the same scene, all about the office party.

How large a chapter should be is completely up to the author or editor and how they want to distribute his story. If it is going to be serialized in any way, the chapters should be all of roughly the same size. That’s the only relevant factor that goes into how long a chapter should be. Beyond that, it’s completely up to the writer or editor.

These last three divisions go beyond my concept of a simple proofreader. Someone who helps a writer manage his chunks, his scenes, and his chapter is called an editor. A good editor will help a writer separate his story into scenes and his scenes into chunks. He’ll also take a look at your character development, setting exposition, and a wide variety of other things that go into a good entertaining story.

The last building block is “The whole story”. A good proofreader will also look at the whole story. Does the plot make sense? Is the plot and resolution believable? Is it really one story? Or is it two or three different stories, either intertwined or one after another? Wearing the editor hat, he may suggest breaking the story after Chapter 17 and padding out the rest as a second story, a sequel.

If the story stands alone, it only needs to be self-consistent. The hero cannot be five in the second chapter, then be seventeen in chapter three, four years later. The hero’s lifetime girlfriend who lives next door should not be Patty in chapter 3, Phyllis in chapter 5, and Peggy in chapter 6. Unless her multiple-personality disorder is a part of the plot, of course.

If the story is set in a series, then the writer has another issue: The setting, the plot, and the characters all have to fit into that original series. If you are writing Harry Potter fan-fic about his time at Hogwart’s, your proofreader should ask why you have Harry always hanging out with your characters Fred and Joe and you never even mention his two best friends, Hermione and Ron.

What the writer should do

It’s easiest for the proofreader if he gets the completed story all at once, ready for his attention. However, it isn’t about the proofreader. It’s about the story, and helping the writer make it better.

It’s easiest on the writer, too, but that leads to the most heartburn when problems are found that require major re-writes.

In all actuality, a writer will get the best results if he tries to work the above list backwards as much as he can. You don’t want your proofreaders to take each chapter as you write it and make each one perfect, and at the end discover that the plot doesn’t work.

It is far better to have someone look at your plot and ending, even if only in outline form, when you ask him to look over your early chapters. If he knows where you’re going, he’ll catch plot issues much earlier than if you keep him in the dark about that neat plot twist. You want to do that to your readers. You don’t want to do that to your proofreader. He’s supposed to be helping you.

Of course, this assumes that you already know the plot and ending when you send the first three chapters to your proofreader. This doesn’t always happen. I have found over and over and over again that people start posting the beginning of a story on ASSTR or SOL when they have no idea how to end it.

Ideally, your proofreader (or editor) should have the plot outline with all planned scenes in his hand along with a complete cast list before you ask him to proofread your Chapter 1 which includes two scenes made up of seven chunks.

Nope, I don’t do it either. Unless I’m getting paid for it, or my proofreaders complain too loudly. I write for fun, and doing it right is too much like work. I create the cast list and all the other reference documentation as I write the story, and hand everything I have to the proofreaders as-is where-is. Sometimes that bites me in the rear end. If writing ever becomes a job again, I’ll have to go back to doing it right.