[This interview originally appeared on the MurderBy4 website in October 2013.]
What a Proofreader Can Do for You and Why OCD Has a Role in the Profession
An Interview with Proofreader Extraordinaire Linda Au
by author Dora Machado
Linda Au has the distinction of being one of the funniest proofreaders in the business. I mean it. She divides her time between her passions, advancing the cause of clean writing and spotless manuscripts while also writing hilarious fiction. Over the years, she and I have worked on many projects together. She has always impressed me with her eye for detail and her uncanny ability to find even the most cryptic of errors, mistakes that often evade authors altogether, despite our best efforts.
As the writing world changes and publishing gets both simpler and also more complicated, I wanted to get Linda’s take on the impact of her profession. Below is my interview with Linda, where we talk about what she does and how she does it, the most common mistakes she finds when proofreading manuscripts, and why a touch of OCD might be a very desirable quality in a proofreader.
Tell us a little bit about yourself. What’s your background and how did you get started in the business of proofreading?
Should I mention that I have in my office a spelling trophy I got in fifth grade? That should have been the first tip-off that I was doomed to this life forever.
I realized I was good at proofreading while working as a secretary in a small publishing office in 1987. The editor asked me to look over a printout of that month’s issue to see if I could find any mistakes, and I handed back pages full of red ink. I’m still proofreading that magazine, in addition to work I do for various publishers and independent authors. My philosophy, strangely enough, is more like a theology. I rely on the doctrine of Original Sin. That’s how I know I’ll always have work. When I get a manuscript or book layout, I already know there are errors because nobody’s perfect. My job is to find those errors.
A good healthy dose of “Question everything” goes a long way, too.
What exactly do you do when you get a hold of a manuscript?
I grab a hard copy of one of my job sheets (something I created in PageMaker years ago to keep track of my hours, back when everything was hard copy), and I scribble all the details of the job on it: deadlines, special instructions, etc. I also add the project to my gargantuan white board. Then I look it over to make sure I don’t have any questions for the author, such as, “Why won’t this file open?” or “Why did you send me a file set completely in Brush Script?” or “You want this when?”
I keep a style sheet on the back of each job sheet—it’s where I jot down any author preferences I pick up along the way: Are we formatting this as “OK” or “okay”? Does the author prefer “toward” or “towards”? Those are things that don’t have a set grammar or spelling rule. It’s not hard to remember them individually, but once I’m working on multiple projects, it’s essential to keep track of what each author prefers.
These days, “digging right in” means either digital scribbling on a PDF or using Track Changes on a Word document. I leave that choice up to the author. Track Changes can look strange if you’re not used to it, though it saves an author time because there are no individual changes to input. PDF scribbles look a lot like hard copy used to: red arrows everywhere, notes in the margins. I even use rainbow color-coding for ongoing issues.
One helpful tip for those who use white boards: If you’re having trouble erasing a project from your white board—and you definitely used the dry erase markers—that means you’re WAY past your deadline.
What are the most common mistakes you find when proofreading novels?
I’m constantly surprised at how few writers really know the basics of punctuation and formatting. Quotation marks and dialogue seem to be a real sticking point. Also, I still encounter authors who don’t seem to like fact-checking. For instance, one novel had a scene set in the 1970s where the main character played a song on a CD player, long before CD players were in use. I might have expected this from a young writer, but this man was a multi-published author who’d been around for decades.
Beyond that, the big errors are the typical ones: they’re/their/there and to/too/two, loose/lose, your/you’re…. And sadly, those sorts of casual errors are way more common than they used to be.
What do you like the most about your job?
Aside from being an introverted night owl who can set her own hours and doesn’t have to interact with people around a water cooler, I get a strange kick out of getting a manuscript from an author who assures me it’s “really pretty clean already,” and then finding a lot of things wrong. The author’s gratitude (after he or she gets over the shock) is great feedback for someone whose work is essentially solitary and can feel perpetually negative. Don’t get me wrong: A lot of the authors I work with do send me tidy manuscripts, especially if they’ve worked with me before. But no writer should hand anything to a proofreader and mention that there aren’t any mistakes. You’re asking for trouble—and a huge dose of snarkiness if you keep mentioning it.
And, because I find words so powerful, and so essential, I enjoy helping people polish their words so that they communicate as clearly as they can. There’s nothing quite like the frustration of being misunderstood because you haven’t expressed yourself well. I like to think I help people avoid some of that.
What are the most important qualities that a writer should look for in a proofreader?
A writer needs someone who is easy to communicate with, someone who can clearly explain the reasons for any suggested changes, someone who can roll with the punches (and there will be punches). Despite having definite opinions about what’s right and wrong in print, I also know that the author (or publisher/editor if I’m working with a company) has the final say. My corrections are sometimes just suggestions, and I have to let it go if they decide not to incorporate some of my scribbles.
It also helps if a proofreader knows as much as possible about the changing trends in publishing. There’s a big difference between someone who can eagle-eye a manuscript and someone who can also nitpick a complete book layout in final form or who can look for glitches in an e-book format.
Beyond that, a proofreader has to be a stickler about the language but yet flexible enough to change with the times. I’m still learning how to do this. I hate to admit it, but I’m still getting over the fact that “anymore” is now one word. But, at least buying new dictionaries is a tax deduction for me.
Now, tell us the truth: Are all proofreaders OCD?
OCD? Ha ha ha! You should see my house! I think I am word-OCD or print-OCD, but not generally OCD. I like tidying things up in print. I like knowing words are in a better order, are being used properly, or are in a position to make a difference now. I confess that some of this OCD spills over into my daily life. I rearrange the throw pillows on the sofa a lot more often than I used to. But, I still don’t wash the baseboards, so there’s hope for me yet.
Writers today face so many hurdles and expenses. Why should having a manuscript professionally proofed be a priority?
In this rapidly evolving publishing world, everyone can call themselves writers by simply typing in a Word document, finishing with “The End,” and uploading it to Kindle Direct Publishing. Bingo! You’re published. Offer your “book” for free and you might even skyrocket to an impressive sales ranking for the day. But you’ll soon realize that even readers who download e-books that didn’t cost them a dime have standards. Their time is worth something. The general reading public is a lot smarter than the general writer-wannabe gives them credit for. They might download your first freebie book, but if it’s riddled with errors, typos, and bad formatting, they won’t care how good the story is (if it’s any good—and you can bet I’m skeptical about that). They’ll never bother to download your second one.
The publishing slush pile used to be on the publisher’s desk. Then it moved to the agent’s desk. Now the whole slush pile is right out there for sale on Amazon.com. How is a serious writer to stand out with all that competition? I’m convinced that what’s going to separate the men from the boys in the new publishing world is professionalism. Good writing. Good content editing. Good typesetting for print books and formatting for e-books. Good copy editing and proofreading.
By the way, as a side note: I am sometimes vexed that readers expect e-books to all be free or ridiculously cheap. A good, professional book still costs money to produce. The writer, editor, copy editor, publisher, and proofreader all still charge money for their services (and it’s a lot less than you think it is—none of us is retiring to the Caribbean any time soon). The only cost savings with e-books are with actual physical production: printing, binding, distribution. So yes, e-books should be cheaper, but good stories still cost money.
You are a writer too. What kinds of books do you write? Do you proofread your own books?
[Updated] The books I have out now are novels and also collections of humor essays, written under my maiden name/pen name of Linda M. Au. Although the essays are fun to write, switching gears and being funny in so many different little “stories” can feel burdensome when I’m putting one of the humor essay books together. I’m collecting ideas and essays for a third book, but I’ve got no personal deadline for it. Next up instead are a few of my NaNoWriMo novels, some of which have won awards (in whole or in part). Fiction is really my first love.
And yes, I do proofread my own books. (I also typeset them.) But I also run them through beta readers when they get close to being finished. That’s as much for content as for spelling and error-checks. Any problem a beta reader can point out helps me be better. I often cringe if it’s a typo or a missing word, of course, since that’s been my bread and butter for decades, but I’m relieved they’ve helped me be as good as I can be when I go to print.
What’s the hardest thing about working with writers?
The extremes in my clientele. It’s tough to have two very different clients at the same time. For instance, one writer might think she’s being helpful by throwing all sorts of formatting into her Word document manuscript, treating it almost like a layout program (which it’s not), or by learning just enough publishing jargon to be dangerous. Manuscript formatting has to be basic, especially if the next step is page layout or e-book formatting, both of which do not play nicely with overly formatted Word documents.
At the other extreme is the writer who still doesn’t seem to care if he or she spells words right or punctuates sentences properly. I’m not talking about a writer who struggles with these issues—I can appreciate the struggle and I really love helping such writers. But I don’t have a lot of tolerance for writers who insist that they are too busy being “creative” to learn the boring, nitpicky details of how to punctuate or spell. To me, that would be like a carpenter saying he’s too busy trying to create a beautiful rocking chair to learn how to use a hammer and saw.
If you’re a writer, you have to completely understand that words and grammar and punctuation are your tools. You need to learn to use them properly if you want to be taken seriously. And, I can guarantee you that, once you learn these things, the creativity will still be there. In fact, it will be freed up and much more accessible to your readers because the mechanics have become second nature.
In your opinion, what’s the current state of spelling in the world?
I think texting is a tool of the devil.
Seriously, I think that text-messaging has its place but has greatly reduced the regard for spelling conventions. I do writing coach work for eighth graders, and I see a lot of them slipping into text-messaging language in their essays: “ur” or “u” … stuff like that. They don’t even realize they’ve done it until I point it out.
I realize that language is fluid, and it’s a living thing, blah blah blah. But, there’s a big difference between language changing for practical reasons (such as “Google” becoming a verb) and language changing because too many people got lazy and misspelled a word or phrase for so long that the powers that be gave up (such as “alright” instead of “all right” slowly becoming more acceptable, though it’s not completely correct yet). Language changes that come from a lazy, uneducated populace bother me. It’s not quite the downfall of civilization, but I bet every civilization that fell had already started mistaking “its” for “it’s.”
Why will proofreading matter in the future?
As I stated above, I think as indie publishing/self-publishing becomes the norm (and it’s careening headlong in that direction already), what’s going to set the professionals apart will be their continued attention to detail and their pride in their work. And that has to include the use of the language. Not just pretty words, but properly spelled, properly punctuated pretty words. After all, writers are selling their ideas, expressed through their words. Why wouldn’t they want them to go out into the world as polished as they can be?
What’s your best proofreading advice for authors everywhere?
If you have to get yourself a grammar textbook from school days or a copy of the Chicago Manual of Style, do it. If your first experience with a proofreader turns up ongoing issues and concerns—words you habitually spell incorrectly or grammar or punctuation issues you still don’t get right—then study and learn. It’s difficult to learn creativity or imagination, but it’s relatively easy to learn grammar and punctuation.
But never think that referring to a textbook can replace actual proofreading. Your own eyes are too forgiving of those words you missed or misspelled. Someone else’s objective eyes just may catch them … and you’ll be better for it.
In a nutshell: Language is your only tool as a writer. Learn to use it properly, and you can write anything well.
My thanks to my friend and fellow author, Dora Machado, for conducting this interview. Dora is the award-winning author of the epic fantasy Stonewiser series and also The Curse Giver, available from Twilight Times Books. She grew up in the Dominican Republic, where she developed a fascination for writing and a taste for Merengue. After a lifetime of straddling such compelling but different worlds, fantasy is a natural fit to her stories.
To learn more about Dora Machado and her novels, visit her website at www.doramachado.com or contact her at Dora@doramachado.com.