I once had a client ask me if I knew any “really good proofreaders.” I was rather offended by the question, since it was my own work that he wanted proofread. Now, once I got over that, I admitted that sure, I’m not perfect. MS Word does correct most spelling errors quite handily, but there are things it can miss, so if you want to be perfect, it makes sense to use a human, too. Personally, I don’t have a pet proofreader, because I find proofreaders do stupid stuff all the time and it makes me angry about how much I pay them.
For instance, I once had a proofreader correct “WWI” to “WWII.” I guess she thought nobody talks about World War One anymore. Nope. I meant World War One. See, if I were that proofreader, I would have looked at the context of the sentence and looked up the piece of history being discussed to see if it had indeed happened during World War One. Google enables us do something like that in ten seconds. Not only did she not bother to look it up, she went ahead and “corrected” it, thus creating more work for me as I had to undo her corrections.
Another proofreader I had—a recent MFA grad—failed to point out very obvious spacing flaws and typos that were actually in the chapter titles but did carefully point out all the aspects of the text that “might offend someone.” Ummm….. In both of those cases, a computer would have been better, cheaper, and less annoying.
I had another proofreader/editor, once, who found my novel confusing because two completely different characters had completely different names that both started with the letter D, and she kept thinking they were the same person. I mean, if my readers are going to be that dumb … woe betide us all. As I signed her check for thousands of dollars, I bemoaned the pointlessness of it all. That said, sometimes you want to triple check things, so you need a human proofreader.
Here is how the professionals proofread.
I used to work for McGraw Hill, in New York City, one of the biggest publishing houses there is, and let me tell you how they did “really good proofreading.” They write textbooks for schools, and they have editors of all kinds on staff. So when the pages are done and they’ve been fully edited, they print out the galleys in color, just like they’ll appear in the book. These pages are about to go to print, but first they send them to literally everyone in the building who isn’t busy that day, to proofread—I mean anyone from the president of the company to the lowliest admin-assist on staff.
At this point, proofreading is not about “expertise,” but rather sheer numbers.
I got one of these pages one day and found a really egregious error. On a page about the Civil War, it was declared in a photo caption that “General Sherman sent in the calvary!” to fight some battle. Ahem. “Calvary” is the hill upon which Jesus was crucified. “Cavalry” is men with swords on horseback. Maybe I noticed it because my family has a military history, so I’m familiar with the word “cavalry.” I corrected it, providing a humorous post-it note alongside, declaring that it would have been strange indeed if General Sherman had somehow summoned “Calvary.”
I seriously thought I deserved a promotion and a tickertape parade
in my honor for catching this at the last minute before it was issued to schoolchildren. But McGraw Hill corrected it without fanfare. I learned that such last-minute corrections are, in fact, no big deal. Errors like that happen all the time, and the only way they catch them is by doing exactly this: running the page past hundreds of eyes attached to hundreds of brains who have different life experiences and happen to be familiar with different words and concepts.
In terms of dealing with ghostwriting clients, giving this advice is problematic for me because some clients have a habit of running my finished manuscript past all their friends, ex-wives, and business associates for “editing.” Sometimes these people turn out to be pretty smart, but often they know nothing about quality writing and make terrible “corrections,” which I have to either comply with or diplomatically explain why I don’t recommend. However, these friends are not typically “proofreading.” They’re “editing,” as in: giving opinions about the general storyline. On the other hand, if the manuscript was sent out to ten friends for “proofreading,” I’d be thrilled. That would mean these folks would put on their reading glasses and go over the text with a fine-toothed comb looking for misspellings and punctuation errors. Typically this is silly because MS Word does that for you. But in certain cases, especially…
When a word is misspelled as another word, MS Word won’t catch it.
That’s exactly what a human needs to look for. But what I’m describing here is hard work. Actual proofreading is tedious as hell, and unless you’re a naturally anal-retentive nerd, you won’t do it for your friends for free.
Thus, we’ve circled back to why proofreaders charge a lot of money.
No proofreader is a perfect editor or a perfect human being, and each and every one has the potential to spot your errors but also to create new ones. This is something you should expect. Always have your proofreaders use Track Changes, so you can reject the corrections they make that you don’t like. And, ideally, use ten different proofreaders. If you’re a mad perfectionist, that’s the best way to ensure you get it right. You’ll never find one person who is guaranteed to find every error. It’s just the nature of this particular beast. That said, being in the writing and publishing industry, I often get contacted by editors and proofreaders looking for work, so if you’re a nerdy perfectionist, here is a list of proofreaders that have asked me to pass their info on to prospective clients: