Thursday, 7 February 2013

Tips, Tricks and Tales: A Guest Post on Proofreading

I am fortunate that my writers group have some amazing people that volunteered to proofread my manuscripts. This post is the first from the group members on proofreading- her details are at the bottom - Linzé

Proofreading, a necessary evil? 

A flutter of white, printed pages or the digital letters birthed with blood, sweat and tears which reside in the memory banks of your computer means that you have finished your prized possession. For any writer this is where his heart lies and where his very soul is poured out. The next obvious step in this process is to place your jewel encrusted manuscript in the hands of proofreaders. This act is analogous to giving your newborn baby away and expecting others to care for it as you have. It is an excruciating, nerve wracking process and as a proofreader and writer myself, my sympathies lie with the writer.

Imagine the shock of getting your “perfect” manuscript back, filled with the red squiggly lines, words and sentences of Microsoft Word’s editing option, not to mention the paragraphs inserted by the proofreader to question the meaning of a particular section or requesting the enhancement of a character. Worse yet are the question marks which signify the prooreader’s inability to plumb the depths of the writer’s thoughts or (dare I say it) logic. I am reminded by the epic words of Forrest Gump: “Run, Forrest, run!” of what this feels like. However, running away won’t fix it. The writer now has to work through the proofreader’s changes, decide what to accept as gospel and what to dump in the trash can. How objective can a writer be when so much of his soul has gone into the creation of the manuscript? Not very, I can tell you from experience. It remains a very personal thing.

This inevitably leads me to the next questions: Is proofreading in any way, shape or form meant as a personal attack on the author? How sensitive should a proofreader be to a writer’s emotions which are indelibly linked to his work? Does this sensitivity change when you proofread for a friend as opposed to a stranger? Is it really necessary to change the voice and style of the author if it doesn’t suit your predilection?

As a proofreader, writers should always bear in mind that I do this for the love of the written word. Sure, there is remuneration involved, but it is and always will be a huge honour to be entrusted with such a fragile thing as a finished manuscript. I tend to handle it with the greatest of care, respect and sensitivity. To write is not an easy thing; it is the bearing of your naked soul, the dissection of who you are and what you believe. It allows others to criticise your very being. It may sound cliché but before I sit down to proofread, I remind myself of these very facts. Tread carefully, this is holy ground.

Never in my life have I seen proofreading as a form of torture or character assassination. Proofreading exists solely as a method of sculpting or moulding a work on its way to perfection. It is therefore to be seen as a resource that is complimentary in nature to the writer’s work. Proofreaders fix the syntax, spelling, and tense mistakes. We look at the continuity from one chapter to the next with regard to where the characters are physically and emotionally, the progression of the story line, intrigue or suspense. We make sure that the writer’s characters exhibit growth as well as behaviour and mannerisms synonymous with those the writer has laid down in the beginning of the novel. If the character was seen in the possession of a gun in the previous chapter, for example, that gun should not re-appear as a candlestick, wrench or rope (my thanks to the game Cluedo) in the following one. We make sure that inconsistencies are ironed out.

A good proofreader is a sensitive creature, mindful of the writer’s emotions and investment into the manuscript. For me at least one of the most important, unbreakable rules is to be kind. There is such a thing as negative criticism. Try in all your dealings with the writer to remain positive and uplifting. By all means write a paragraph or sentence if a portion of the manuscript struck you as sheer beauty, prosaic elegance or literary abandon. Fix mistakes quietly, even if that mistake is repeated ad infinitum. Be ever mindful that there is a human being behind the written word. By this I do not mean that you should pussy-foot, for then you are not doing yourself or the writer any favours at all. The manuscript needs to be ready to leap into the arms of the publishing houses and this is part of the work of a good proofreader; the responsibility is immense.

I would like to say that I am able to remain objective at all times, regardless of whether the manuscript belongs to a friend or a stranger. In most respects I do, but remember that we are human too and at times we do tend to tread lighter; it is in the nature of Homo sapiens to treat those belonging to his or her own group with more empathy and compassion, or am I grasping at straws? This slightly more sensitive approach to friends does not lie in the correcting of obvious mistakes but rather in our synopsis of the novel we supply at the very end of our task. Here the personal feelings of the proofreader towards the novel may be mentioned as well as the smoothness or lack thereof of the reading experience. In spite of these all too human drawbacks, we do try to be objective throughout. It bears mentioning that we too are susceptible to the odd mistake or oversight, again I blame my DNA.

DO NOT (EVER) CHANGE THE VOICE OR STYLE OF THE WRITER. This is a cardinal rule. Respect the fact that the writer has written the manuscript to convey certain feelings, emotions, milieus and sociological backgrounds. Far be it from any proofreader to change the style or specific voice from minimalistic to prosaic, from blunt to expansive or from aggressive and violent to passive and peaceful. It is simply not your right even if the style or genre is not to your taste. Face it if this is your job, how many of the manuscripts you proofread are going to fall within those preconceived parameters anyway?

In conclusion and on a personal note proofreading is a necessary evil; we need more perfectly nurtured manuscripts out there. As an avid reader I have seen too many mistakes slip past proofreaders, editors and publishers not to take this seriously. The writer’s work and the future of the manuscript depend largely upon the look and feel of it when it eventually ends up in the hands of literary agents, editors and publishing houses. If it is a cared for and well presented manuscript the success rate soars exponentially.

In the end proofreading is an adventure; a veritable treasure hunt I will never tire of nor pass up if I have any choice in the matter. In truth you would have to pry manuscripts out of my dying, bony hands to get me to stop. I simply love it!!

Bio: Vanessa von Mollendorf

I am primarily a visual artist with two exhibitions behind me. I work in oils, acrylics, pen and pencil. An avid reader and proofreader. At the moment, I am trying to finish my first crime novel. My short story compilation is currently being viewed by an e-book publisher- keep your toes crossed. Amongst all these things I am also a pug breeder and mother of two sons.

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