Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Proofread Your Stuff

Let me say this again: Proofread your stuff!

Not everything about writing is fun. While some of what a writer does is grand and glorious bursts of creativity, or basking in the adulation of the readers who love the writer’s stuff, a lot of it just seat-to-the-chair hard work, and some of it is real drudgery.

One of the most drudgesome tasks a writer has to perform is proofreading. This is the business of going through your manuscript word by word, correcting spelling errors, fixing grammatical mistakes, making sure there are no omitted words, making sure the paragraphing is correct and seeing that opening and closing quotes match.

Proofreading is no fun. That is why beginning writers can come up with the most amazing ‘reasons’ not to do it.

Which is a deadly mistake. Proof your work. Proof it carefully. If you don’t, your chances of ever making a sale are just about zero.

Still, the excuses keep coming from beginners. Among my least favorites are:

“Proofreading is the publisher’s job”

If you don’t do a careful job of proofreading your manuscript no publisher is going to consider it.

●”Proofreading is uncreative”

Proofreading is damned uncreative. It is about the least creative work I know. It is also a vital part of being a writer.

●”The editor will see past all that to be basic quality of my story.”

What the editor will see is that you’re either lazy or illiterate. Either condition promises trouble for the editor down the road. Editors hate authors who cause them trouble and authors who cause them unnecessary trouble are shunned.

●I’ve got a spellchecker, so my spelling is fine.

Like bloody hell! That attitude is why spellcheckers are one of the worst things to happen to basic literacy since Dick and Jane.

A spellchecker deals with strings of characters, not meanings. If a character string appears on its list, it will pass it without comment. That means it can’t distinguish between “to”, “two” and “too”, even though the differences jump out at readers.

There are worse examples and you see them all the time in amateur writing. “Horde” means a bunch of people, canonically Mongols. “Hoard” is a collection of something, usually treasure. And “Horded” means you desperately need to curl up with a nice, warm dictionary. “Principal” is the guy in charge of a school. “Principle” is a fundamental rule. “Capital” is a building. Capitol is the city where you find the building. And on, and on, and on.

If you’re not sure what the word means, look it up before you use it.

Sometimes a spellchecker can get you into trouble with more than just your editor. When I was working on the college paper, one of the reporters was assigned to do a story about a sociology professor who was just back from West Africa where he had been studying the problems created by educated Africans leaving their home countries for the West. Throughout the interview he kept talking about expatriate Africans.

Now this is a very sensitive issue in Africa because many Africans see expatriates as turning their back on their countries. So the professor was furious when the newspaper article kept referring to ‘ex-patriot’ Africans.

I don’t recall seeing that reporter around after that semester.

If you’re not a natural at proofreading, join the club. Almost no writer is. Most of the writers of my acquaintance are naturally lousy spellers. I didn’t learn to spell until I worked on a newspaper copy desk in college and even today I’m not good at it.

But you’d never know any of that from a professional writer’s manuscript. The worse you are at spelling and such, the more carefully you go over every word of every line on every page

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