Saturday, November 3, 2007

SS: The 90/10 Proofreader

So, I’m an editor and writer by trade, but I have one dirty secret that I might as well share with the world: I’m really not the best proofreader. While we’re at it, I’ll also confess that I’m a shit speller as well.

I get the impression that people assume that editors are automatically talented at proofreading, which is generally defined by most publications as reviewing a text for spelling and grammatical errors. I think this is assumed by people both in and outside the editorial world. If you know how to pitch a great story, write a great story, rewrite the great story to be more of a great story, it means you can also sit down with a ruler and a red pencil and line edit the story, right?

Not for me. I’m actually a really good editor, but in the sense of: I can find newsworthy, interesting stories when they are called for, I can rewrite your crap article to make it look like someone at “The New Yorker” penned it, I can imitate the tone and voice of a publication so successfully that I actually hear the “voice” speaking in my head and I can write a mission statement that would put any editor at Condé Nast to shame. I can also tell that you have talent even if you have just turned in something so horribly disorganized that I have to cut out key words and phrases with scissors and rearrange them by hand to figure out what you were trying to say.

If you ask me to desist from using a serial comma before an “and” construction, however, you will be spending much time using the Microsoft “Find and Replace” function while editing my article. The same goes for finding extra spaces between paragraphs and spotting subtle inconsistencies in font style.

I happen to be what is called a “big-picture thinker.” I’m not good with details. Or perhaps it’s that I can only see the details that appear relevant to me, and I happen to have a great intuition for finding the details that are the most relevant to the project at hand. My opinion is that big-picture thinkers are just as important as the detailed-oriented types in the media profession. Unfortunately, if you (God forbid!) make the mistake of not inserting a comma in the “right” place in a piece, you are automatically labeled as a “bad editor.”

But it’s really not the case. Quite honestly, most writers are human, and human beings tend to err. If I were to spend all my time torturing (it really is torture) myself over where to put commas, whether or not I have divined the “true” meaning or just the connotation of a word and if I have indeed inserted an adverb in a infinitive (did I even describe this correctly?) I wouldn’t be able to finish half of the truly excellent pieces I’ve written. Yes, I’m very big-picture.

I completely respect and admire proofreaders. Proofreading takes a marathon amount of mental stamina, and there is a lot of pressure on a proofreader’s head. I always felt sorry for the person who missed that major spelling gaffe on the cover of “Glamour” a few years back. Even proofreaders can have their “off” days -- imagine your “off” day being translated into one million glossies going out to every other household in the country!

And actually, through careful training and years of having to do it to stay employed, I’ve become what I would call a “90/10” proofreader: I catch 90 percent of the errors in any written piece and I don’t catch the other ten percent. I will do proofreading for some of my clients if it’s a small piece, such as a press release. I catch virtually all errors on press releases. But I couldn’t do anything much longer. I tend to get bored and fidgety, then sort of depressed and then downright despondent, the longer I go through the piece. I think my lackluster proofreading skills are really just a symptom of my inability to sit still for longer than five minutes.

In my view, if you want to be a professional proofreader, you really have to be a “100/100” proofreader. You need to be able to catch virtually all errors that come across your desk. I can’t do this. My brain does not function this way. And I’ve learned to accept this. I’ve also gotten to the point in my career where I can usually say no to most proofreading-only type projects.

It may seem silly for me to harp on my inability to be an incredible proofreader. But I work in a field obsessed with details. So the person who has the brain for details will invariably be perceived in a better light than a big-picture thinker. I’ve learned to work around it by maximizing my other editorial-related talents and letting someone else do the final proof. This way, nobody has to know my “little secret.”

But I might as well be honest about it. I’m not the world’s best proofreader, and I can live with that. I’m big-picture, and I belong in the editorial cesspool just as much as the detail-oriented person. Really, you need me: Who else is going to tell you that despite your correct use of a consistent tense in an article and your ability to abstain from using the colon or parentheses, it’s a disorganized piece of crap? And that you have no talent?

© Sarah Stanfield, November 3, 2007

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