It’s When You Think You Know …
Proofreading has always been important for a writer, but it is even more so now, when many publications (thankfully, not this one) no longer employ copyeditors nor seem to care how many otherwise avoidable errors might slip into a story or article.
You, as a horror writer, should concern yourself not only with expanding the boundaries of fiction but also with upholding the standards of a language which has a long and honorable tradition. (Also, you don’t ever want to make a fool of yourself on paper in front of readers who know better.)
Since you cannot rely on publishers to have editors who will take the care they should with your prose, it is incumbent upon you to make sure that the copy you deliver is as free of typos and errors of grammar and syntax as you can make it.
It doesn’t hurt to have a different set of eyes read your manuscript. And that different set of eyes can be your own, a day or a week (or even an hour) after you first composed your piece and maybe gave it the once-over. Sometimes that distance is all that’s required for you to catch mistakes and improve sentences.
But often it doesn’t hurt to have someone else check your work, simply because, if you made a typo, it may be the kind of thing that you’ll gloss over when proofreading. We know what our stories should say, so sometimes we supply a word that we left out or “see” the proper spelling of a term even though what we wrote is missing that word or has mistaken that term.
I think I have already recounted my story about a glaring typo that, to my eternal embarrassment, I left standing in my published manuscript, Nuns’ Blood. And this was after I (and others) had gone over the manuscript many times. I won’t bother you with the troubled history of the book’s publication, but I will tell you that one good thing about the experience was that I was able to control the format of the book—I laid it out and produced “camera-ready copy,” using what was then a state-of-the-art publishing software (whose name I forget—not that it matters: Word can now do everything this software once did). Such control meant that I was able to read and reread the manuscript to make sure no typos crept in, and I think I succeeded in catching all of them.
At the end of this epistolary vampire novel (obviously, I was emulating Bram Stoker in form), the protagonist, Vanna Helsing (and I’m proud of that name, even though one publisher thought it was too “jokey”), writes a letter to the Archdiocese of Detroit, which says, in part,
“In order to reinforce the good work thus begun, I respectively request that a review board reconsider Monsignor Harker’s career at St. Mary Magdalena’s with an eye toward reinstating his good name …”
Can you spot the error? I read that sentence I don’t know how many times, and I didn’t see my mistake until after the book was in print. Now it seems so obvious and jumps right out at me.
What I meant to write, what I should have written, was “I respectfully request”—but I didn’t. This line came on about page 237 of a 238-page book; it’s part of the dénouement after the big climax, when things are winding down and loose ends are being tied up, and I’m sure that I made the mistake initially because I was winding down, knowing “The End” was in sight, and rushing to get to it. (Of course, errors can be overlooked at any point in a manuscript; if you’ve written a really exciting passage, your printed words may fling you headlong across the text and cause you to miss mistakes.)
Every time I reread that sentence, it was under the same circumstances. I was getting to the end; I had again proofread 200-plus pages, and I let myself “relax”; I saw the word “respectfully” even when what I’d written was “respectively.”
When I was a graduate assistant in English at Wayne State University (just about 50 years ago, which I find hard to believe, I’m such a young kid), we G. A.s had a mentor, a full professor who acted as a guide to all of us who had never taught at the college level before (who had never taught, period). I still remember some of his words of wisdom—the main one being “Never let the sun set on a set of ungraded papers” (i.e., “Do your corrections immediately, young man [or “young woman,” as the case may be]!”).
The relevant advice from Professor Wagner in reference to proofreading/correcting was the suggestion to read students’ papers backwards—that is, read the last sentence first, then the next-to-last, then the one before that, and so on. While this was not a good method for understanding a student’s argument or examining the structure of that argument, it was a good way to uncover what some in the field of composition call “surface errors”—those mistakes of spelling and verb agreement and missing words that can be overlooked or ignored when one is reading beginning to end and becoming engrossed in (or trying to follow) the flow of the paper. “Reading backwards” allows a proofer/editor to examine each sentence individually, divorced from context, and thus concentrate on typos and mistakes.
I don’t know how practical or possible it would be to read a novel manuscript backwards—but I might have caught my own mistake if I had. I merely suggest this method to you as a tool that might come in handy after you’ve read your story the right way through a few times, just to see if you can catch any elusive errors that may have escaped your eagle eye and discerning taste for the reason I’ve mentioned above (being too caught up in the narrative and letting your brain supply the correct language, even if it’s not there on the page).
Try this exercise. Here’s a passage from a recent op-ed piece written by Michael A. Cohen (not Donald Trump’s convicted lawyer—that’s Michael D. Cohen), which appeared in The Boston Globe on Tuesday, April 23, 2019, page A10). Can you spot the error therein?
“It is not an exaggeration to say that, during the 2016 campaign, the material interests of candidate Trump and a foreign government that illegally interfered in the most scared of democratic acts—a presidential election—were one and the same.”
Did you see it—and, if you did, was it on your first or second (or third, etc.) reading?
Somebody (either Cohen—who is not a dummy—or whoever “typeset” the piece) wrote scared when s/he meant sacred.
It’s only a two-letter transposition; scared and sacred look very much alike, don’t they? So it’s an easy error to introduce if you’re typing quickly, and an easier error to overlook if you’re proofreading cursorily (or even carefully). Reporters are under tight deadlines when they write for daily newspapers (though columnists may have more leisure with their material), so they can introduce unintended errors. However, if newspapers still employed copy editors—or good copy editors—someone should have caught the mistake before it was printed. (But, every other month or so, I’m always bringing you examples of errors in newspapers, so that should tell you something. Maybe it tells you that one ought to get one’s news online—but I don’t even bother to talk about the typos I find online because I find so many, even though correcting online text after it’s put up is much easier than correcting something in print once it’s printed.)
So you gotta be careful. You gotta be diligent. Use your own pair of eyes and enlist others’.
Thank you and good day.
Anthony Ambrogio, firstname.lastname@example.org
[Yeah, I know; I did that to see if you were paying attention.]