Chances are the first assignment you will find yourself faced with once you take your initial tentative steps on the road to becoming a professional proofreader will be proofreading someone’s novel.
The novel will likely be the work of a family member or friend, or a friend of a friend.
I would strongly recommend you reject the assignment.
I’m serious. Run away.
A ‘fresh pair of eyes’ isn’t going to cut it, pal.
Why? Because this budding author doesn’t want you to proofread their novel at all. They want you to edit it. Oh, they’ll say things like, “I just need someone to run a fresh pair of eyes over it.” They’ll say things like, “I’ve checked it myself, like a hundred times, so it’s going to be pretty much error-free.” They’ll say things like, “You’re just looking for anything glaring that I might have overlooked, that’s all.”
Don’t believe a word of it. That’s not to say they’re lying. Chances are they genuinely believe their literary debut is pretty much error-free, contains the odd overlooked glaring error, and just needs a fresh pair of eyes running over it. But they’re wrong. They’re so very, very wrong.
The fact is, their magnum opus doesn’t need proofreading, at all. Not yet, at least. No, their work needs editing. It needs editing badly. Which means it needs the attention of an editor before a proofreader ventures anywhere near it.
You are not an editor. At least, not yet.
Now, you may aspire to becoming an editor. If so, great. But this site is about proofreading, and my eBook is a proofreading how-to guide. And, as I’ve pointed out on a number of occasions, proofreading and editing are very different activities. Editing is very much about the quality of a manuscript. Proofreading is about the accuracy of a piece of work.
Don’t get me wrong, proofreading improves the quality of a manuscript no end but it does so by removing the inaccurate spelling, grammar and so forth that marks out a piece of writing as second rate. What’s more, there’s nothing wrong with a proofreader making the odd recommendation that would normally fall to the editor, but such suggestions should only be occasional and should be very far from the core focus of what the proofreader is attempting to achieve.
At the risk of stating the obvious, quality is subjective, a matter of opinion. Conversations between editors and writers tend to be closer to a negotiation, with the editor’s recommendations often accompanied by a persuasive argument. Proofreaders and writers rarely need to communicate directly with one another. More often than not, our archaic red-pen squiggles say all that needs to be said.
Most first novels remain unpublished for a reason
Now, you could approach the proofreading of your friend-of-a-friend’s novel silently intoning the mantra, “My business is not to edit. My business is to proofread. My business is not to edit. My business is to proofread.” But I guarantee that before you get to the end of the second page, you’ll be biting you tongue, your mind a whirl of recommendations that will not simply improve the work of our budding novelist but will lift it from the realms of utter dross into something that might, with a great deal of work, just about be made fit for public consumption.
I know this seems harsh. It is harsh. But the chances are the novel you’re asked to proofread will be, at best, mediocre. Chances are, it will be an incomprehensible mess, which will elicit a despondent sigh and a mumbled, “Where do I even start?”
My advice: don’t agree to proofread a novel that hasn’t already been rigorously and independently edited. A novel that has been subjected to the often-harsh scrutiny of an editor will, by and large, only require proofreading. And that’s your job. That’s what you’ve trained for. An unedited novel is a metaphorical and literal headache just waiting to happen. Your headache.
There are exceptions, of course. There are first novels that materialize as if by magic and set the literary world aflame. And these incendiary debuts are written by people who have families, by people who have friends and whose friends have friends. There may well be a Rowling out there who was approached by their second cousin, Joanne, with a polite, “I’ve heard you do a bit of proofreading. You wouldn’t mind casting a fresh pair of eye over this, would you?”
The chances are vanishingly remote, however.
We live in the age of self-publishing. And I think that’s fantastic. For writers. For proofreaders, it’s an utter freaking nightmare. Because the traditional gatekeepers are no longer at their posts. And again, this is great. For writers. They can get their work out there, build up a readership and, as long as they’re prepared to do their growing-up in public, find success. But for proofreaders... like I said: utter freaking nightmare.
If you find it hard to say ‘no’...
Okay, so our budding novelist has deployed their best puppy-dog eyes and is staring at you with imploring desperation. You just can’t find it in your heart to say ‘no’.
Whatever you do, whatever you do, don’t say ‘yes’.
Say, “I’ll tell you what, just because it’s you, I’ll take a look at it. I’m not promising anything. If I think it isn’t ready for proofreading, I’ll hand it back and advise you to take it,” and your damned puppy-dog eyes, “to an editor. Okay?”
Then, without so much as picking up a red pen, give the first two pages of the manuscript a read. That’s going to be about 500 words or so. If, after you’ve read those first 500 words you’ve only spotted the odd silly mistake, then read the next 500 words. Keep doing that until you’ve flicked through about 20 pages of manuscript. If you’re only encountering silly little errors and minor oversights, then and only then accept the assignment.
This won’t happen, of course. Well, maybe it’ll happen.
It’s far more likely that by the time you get to the end of page two, you’ll be confused as to who’s doing what to whom, or why they’re doing it. You’ll have encountered at least four passive sentences, three dangling modifiers, a handful of clichés, a surfeit of adverbs and more synonyms for ‘said’ than you even knew existed. And the seed of that headache I promised you will have started to sprout its first agonizing little shoot.
Hand the manuscript back and say, “There’s definitely something good here. But it needs an editor.”
So when you find yourself staring down at a manuscript so besmirched with red ink it looks like it’s been used as a prop in a Quentin Tarantino movie, and you’re wondering where the time went (midnight, already?), don’t say I didn’t warn you. Because I warned you.
Best of luck with all your proofreading endeavors.
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My name's Mike Sellars and I'm an experienced proofreader and the author of The No-Nonsense Proofreading Course. Click here to find out more about me.
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