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Proofreading, a new career?

I’ve never been much of a joiner – by which I obviously mean that I can be something of a loner rather than a crap carpenter (although I happen to be that too) – but last month I joined the SfEP (or Society for Editors and Proofreaders to give them their full title). This unprecedented need to connect has been driven not by social isolation and loneliness but the desire to formally qualify in a field in which I have dabbled for the last thirty years.

Admittedly, as a writer, up until now my contact with editors and proofreaders was on the opposite side of the desk, so to speak. The editor was that most revered of creatures: the one who held all your hopes in her hands (I say ‘her’ because I’ve never yet had a male editor) being the person within the publishing house who had seen something in your novel, thus lifting it out of the slush pile of dashed-desire and onto her glorious desk of dreams-come-true. Suddenly, you had an editor. You had a book deal. You could call yourself a writer without feeling like a fraud. Over lunches and editorial meetings your self-esteem soared as the book was re-worked in your editor’s careful hands bringing it ever closer to its glorious publication date.

And if that makes you feel uncomfortable – the idea of someone else tinkering with your beloved manuscript – I would suggest that you either have far more self-belief than I ever had, or have just not suffered as many rejections as me! In the words of John Lennon and Paul McCartney:

I could make it longer if you like the style.
I can change it ’round,
And I want to be a paperback writer,

Oh yeah, I would do anything to see that baby published. Prostitute my art? You bet! I would have gladly given my first born (or, more realistically, my pet parrot as I am blissfully child-free) to an editor if that’s what it took to become the aforementioned paperback writer enshrined in Beatle-song.

And, trust me, a good editor makes all the difference: shout-outs here go to Hazel Songhurst who was my editor for the ‘Mysterious World’ series in the 90s and to my editor at The Women’s Press who worked with me on the 2002 novel ‘Secrets’, whose name I have sadly forgotten, sorry, but whose contributions were invaluable). They showed me exactly what a good editor does. A good editor fills in holes that you have not even identified. A good editor tightens up your words and makes the whole piece stronger and richer without detracting from the fact that it is still your voice behind the words, and ultimately still your work. However, you may not always truly appreciate what a great job they do until you have a bad editor to compare them with. Then the editing process becomes a wade through treacle-covered tracts and at the end of it you look round and cannot even see the point of such hard work!

Proof-readers, on the other hand, are part of an invisible army, all working to produce the finished book but whose faces you never get to see. Unlike with my editors, I didn’t have meetings or lunches with my proofreaders, or my typesetters or printers or binders; not even with the cover designers. Yet I saw the fruits of all their labours once the hard copy hit the bookshop shelves. In many ways proofreading seems like a thankless job: you only become visible when you cock something up! But it’s a necessary job and one which I now hope to embrace.

It takes a certain person to be able to work at the required level of minutiae of the proofreader and I like to think that I am such a person. As a language teacher, I’m naturally a grammar pedant; a stickler for detail. I first learned the basics to the art of proofreading from an old boss at my language school. He too was a stickler for detail, insisting that I held a ruler under each line of text and only moving on when I was absolutely sure that the line was fault-free. He was an unusual man, with strong opinions on a variety of things, not all of which I adopted (“never trust men in soft-shoes, with beards or backpacks” was one of his oft-spouted beliefs, long before Al-Qaeda had changed the way we might perceive such things). He had an email address before I even owned a computer and we roundly mocked him for it, but obviously we were the ones who should have been mocked.

Whilst I took his trust issues regarding bearded men with a tablespoon of salt, I did come away with a methodical approach to proofreading and have since used those skills to proofread and edit much of my own work as an author as well as various other documents, brochures, adverts and web pages for the number of companies I have since worked in or for, from language schools to motorcycle training schools, to sales companies and housing associations so I’d like to think that I am going to hit the ground running with this proofreading malarkey. As I start the first of my training courses, we shall see!

Perhaps the first thing to clear up is proofreader: proof reader, proofreader or proof-reader…. I’m on it like a tramp on chips.


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