Sunday, May 16, 2010

Proofreading: a gentle reminder

I did say that I was going to write about the merits of editing, didn’t I? Let’s start with proofreading.

Writing is a skill that most people around the world do not have, sadly. Good writing is a skill that is even harder to come by. But good writing that has also been edited and proofread, that has proper punctuation and grammar? Readers, I’ll be honest with you: it’s like finding a rare, precious gemstone in the middle of a dark and lonely forest.

When I’m reading something—whether a scientific article for the one job or a short story for the other—and I come across something that reads fluidly and easily, has no typos or misplaced commas, no fragments or clunky sentences, I can almost hear the heavenly music. I find myself excited beyond all reason, I sigh happily, and I gush about the writing to anyone who wants to listen. (I also tend to respond to these authors with lots of exclamation points! And smiley faces! :-D Because I’m so excited!)

This, unfortunately, happens rarely.

Also fairly unlikely are those who send me horribly unreadable writing: writing that is so filled with spelling errors, random commas, no sense of sentence structure, etc., that I can hardly understand it at all. Like I said, I don’t see these too often (thankfully), because nowadays most people seem to at least know to ask a friend or three to read over their work before sending it in somewhere. (Yes, I realize that this assumes that your friends know about basic grammar rules and the like. Luckily, most of these friends do. Don’t underestimate your friends!) If I can’t even understand your work, writers, it’ll be rejected within moments; if it’s going to take me longer to edit it than it took for you to write it, forget it.

Frankly, it’s tempting to be insulted when people send in this kind of thing—do they think my time is worth wasting? Are they saying they think I’m the type of editor who doesn’t read what is submitted to me? But no, that’s not it. They just don’t know any better.

(Ta-da! Here is Jennifer, to save the day, to slay woeful ignorance and educate writers around the world as to the importance of editing! Huzzah! All hail the editor!)

Most of what I see is the in-between stuff. The writers who know enough about grammar to know that “not only” is always accompanied by “but also” but don’t know that semicolons are only used (other than in lists) to connect two interrelated sentences (sentences that must be able to stand on their own without the semicolon [e.g., This is a sentence; this is also a sentence. But this is not; the proper use for a semicolon]).

The in-between stuff is often filled with wonderful thoughts and brilliant ideas, but sometimes—sadly—that brilliance can’t shine through, or the thoughts are lost because they weren’t expressed properly. A misplaced comma can make the difference between “a panda eats, shoots and leaves” and “a panda eats shoots and leaves” (in the first sentence, we’re talking about a gun-wielding panda, whereas in the second we’re referring to what pandas eat); similarly, a misplaced hyphen could make the difference between “a man eating chicken” and “a man-eating chicken” (a man who eats chicken versus a chicken that eats men)!

In other words, writers, please make sure you have at least a friend or two read over your work before you send it in. If you don’t trust your friends to read over your work, join a writing group to find like-minded friends (or pay a freelance editor to read it, if you have to and if it’s something important). You just never know when your paper or story could have been 90% there, but, because of a few misplaced modifiers, the entire basis of your story has been misunderstood. And hey, nobody is perfect—and nobody (but nobody!) can catch all of her own mistakes. (I even had someone read over this post for errors!) So don’t be embarrassed, and don’t be too proud.

If anyone has any words on the merits of proofreading or having a couple of beta readers, please share them! Do you tend to trust only your own judgment, or do you swear by that outsider’s eye to catch your mistakes?

1 comment: